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Rank #43 in Drama category

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Drama

PseudoPod

Updated 14 days ago

Rank #43 in Drama category

Arts
Books
Fiction
Drama
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The Sound of Horror

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The Sound of Horror

iTunes Ratings

981 Ratings
Average Ratings
876
57
18
14
16

A favorite

By Loralinda - May 11 2020
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Provocative stories, well told. Alastair, the host, provides his own brief, insightful commentary that sets this podcast apart from others. At the end of each year there is a special episode. Characters and elements from that year’s stories are woven into a tale about a macabre parade. It’s hard to explain, but it is mind blowingly original and makes me so glad I found this podcast. The makers of Pseudopod strive to provide its writers, voice actors, and entire creative team with fair pay. Thank you for many hours of thoughtful entertainment.

Consistently Entertaining

By Neal Dewing - Apr 29 2020
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This show will help you to become a well-rounded horror aficionado. It’s weekly, it’s free, and only very rarely does it disappoint. Pros: •Stimulating variety in horror subjects, authors, and literary styles. •Presents classic and contemporary works. •Genuine enthusiasm for their subject. •Mostly professional-quality narrators. •Insanely huge back catalogue (good for pandemics). Cons: •Occasionally, low sound quality for host and narrator. •Seems to be a conduit for wicked spirits and elder gods to enter our plane of existence, which can be a real hassle if you’re trapped in the house.

iTunes Ratings

981 Ratings
Average Ratings
876
57
18
14
16

A favorite

By Loralinda - May 11 2020
Read more
Provocative stories, well told. Alastair, the host, provides his own brief, insightful commentary that sets this podcast apart from others. At the end of each year there is a special episode. Characters and elements from that year’s stories are woven into a tale about a macabre parade. It’s hard to explain, but it is mind blowingly original and makes me so glad I found this podcast. The makers of Pseudopod strive to provide its writers, voice actors, and entire creative team with fair pay. Thank you for many hours of thoughtful entertainment.

Consistently Entertaining

By Neal Dewing - Apr 29 2020
Read more
This show will help you to become a well-rounded horror aficionado. It’s weekly, it’s free, and only very rarely does it disappoint. Pros: •Stimulating variety in horror subjects, authors, and literary styles. •Presents classic and contemporary works. •Genuine enthusiasm for their subject. •Mostly professional-quality narrators. •Insanely huge back catalogue (good for pandemics). Cons: •Occasionally, low sound quality for host and narrator. •Seems to be a conduit for wicked spirits and elder gods to enter our plane of existence, which can be a real hassle if you’re trapped in the house.
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PseudoPod

Latest release on May 29, 2020

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The Sound of Horror

Rank #1: PseudoPod 599: The Boy with the Glass Eyes

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PseudoPod 599: The Boy with the Glass Eyes is a PseudoPod original.

The Boy With The Glass Eyes

By J.L. Flannery

My son arrived in a brown cardboard package, no bigger than a shoebox.

I lifted the lid to see him lying there flat on his back, eyes closed, as though he were asleep.

‘Go on,’ my Boss said, ‘lift him up.’

Nervously, I lifted him up out of the box and cradled him in my arms. His skin was velvet. His smell; pure talcum powder. I looked down at his sleeping face and put on a smile, pretending the nausea that was rising in my throat didn’t exist.

My Boss, Mr Yamamoto, stood staring, waiting for me to react.

‘It’s incredibly lifelike,’ I said in Japanese.

He nodded, ‘Just like a real baby. Go ahead. Power it up.’

I hesitated a moment. What on earth would Alice say when I bought this thing home with me?

‘It’s a great privilege to be chosen,’ Mr Yamamoto said smiling, as if he could sense my unease.

I nodded, ‘Yes, I know. Thank you. I’m very grateful about it, honest I am. It’s just…’

‘It’s just what?’

‘Nothing,’ I said, ‘it’s nothing,’ and I held down the button on the base of its spine and the baby woke up.

Slowly, his eyes opened and he turned his head to look at me with his blue eyes made of glass.

‘The baby will be on at all times,’ Mr Yamamoto explained, ‘the light at the base of his spine will glow green to tell you its on. He’ll automatically go into shutdown mode at night, once the room is dark. If you need to, you can force shutdown mode by putting him back in his box.’

I nodded, but I wasn’t really listening. The baby I held in my arms was smiling at me, a big gummy smile. As far as AI go, this was the most remarkable I’d seen. It looked like a real baby. It’s skin felt soft like a baby’s. Hell, it even had the same scent as one. I was fascinated and disturbed in equal measure.

‘Your wife will enjoy having him for the weekend, I’m sure,’ Mr Yamamoto said, smiling proudly.

‘Oh yes,’ I lied, ‘I’m sure it will make her very happy.’

It was my idea to move to Tokyo. At the time my wife, Alice, wasn’t so keen.

If you have never been there, the experience is hard to describe but I’ll try my best: neon buildings grow out of the concrete, stretching up to reach the sky. Zebra crossings zigzag in all directions, whilst people in their thousands march across in total silence. Cartoon characters stare back at you everywhere you look: on a subway pass, on manhole covers, on shop signs, on crisp packets and tourist leaflets. Boys wear eyeliner and t-shirts emblazoned with nonsensical English. Girls wear ghostly white make up and Bo-Peep dresses, giggling like porcelain dolls come to life. Dogs wear bows and sequin outfits. In one corner of Tokyo, Roppongi Hills, a giant spider stands keeping watch over the city. In Odiba; a giant gundam robot. Toilets flush themselves. Hotels rooms are space age capsules. Stepping into Tokyo feels like stepping into the future.

We visited there when we first got married and I’m pretty sure Alice loved it as much as I did. After visiting Tokyo, England lost its shine. It was difficult to hide our irritation at people talking loudly on public transport, the lateness of just about everything, and the general selfishness of people. When it was cold and rainy at home, we longed for the sun and cherry blossoms of Japan.

And, of course, we’d just lost the baby.

Jasper was only two weeks old when he died.

Alice gave birth to him at only twenty-eight weeks and if I’m honest, I knew as soon as I saw him that he was going to die. He looked too tiny, too fragile to live. I would sit for hours at his bedside, just watching him lying there in the incubator, struggling to breathe in. Every time he breathed he made this awful rasping noise. The doctors said even if he had survived, he would have had respiratory problems for the rest of his life.

The first time I got to hold our baby in my arms, he was already dead. We dressed him in the blue flannel sleepsuit Alice had bought for him and we took photos together as if he was still alive, and we were a ‘normal’ family. Jasper looks just like a doll cradled in our arms.

Depression washed over the both of us for a long time, but for Alice it was much worse. I was scared she was going to let grief wash her away completely. She refused to get out of bed. She cried all day long. She blamed herself for Jasper’s death even though it was nobody’s fault.

For a while I was scared to leave her alone for fear she would hurt herself, but gradually with time and with medication, her grief began to ease a little and that was when I suggested we came to Tokyo.

It was meant to be a new beginning.

A way to forget.

The night I bought the AI home, I couldn’t bring myself to tell Alice straight away. I left the baby in its box in the hallway of our apartment whilst I thought of a tactful way to break the news. I waited until we’d both finished eating dinner before I told her about him. She listened to my explanation and instead of bursting into tears like I thought she would, she seemed enthusiastic about the idea.

‘Well, bring it inside,’ she said smiling, ‘you can’t just leave him outside, John. What if your Boss found out you’d left his prototype in an apartment hallway?’

So, I bought the box inside and placed it on the kitchen table.

‘You ready?’

She looked back at me and nodded.

As soon as I lifted the lid, I saw the look of surprise in her eyes. She was expecting Astro Boy, not a doll so realistic it could pass for a real human baby.

She reached out slowly to stroke its soft blond hair, and the baby writhed and held up its arms. Alice jumped back from the box, afraid, but then she moved forward again and picked him up, laughing nervously at herself for having been startled.

The baby gurgled in her arms.

‘Wow John! This is unbelievable,’ she said.

It was the first time in eighteen months I had seen her smile like that.

I thought then, that it would all work out okay after all.

But I was wrong.

That night, as the sun set and the room grew dim, the baby did just as Mr Yamomoto said it would and powered down. It’s movements slowly stiffened and eventually came to a stop. I watched Alice’s face change from contentment to panic and I quickly snatched the baby away from her and carried it over to its box.

‘It’s okay. It’s meant to do that,’ I reassured her, ‘it’s powering down for the night.’

But as I stood putting the baby in the box with my back turned, I felt that feeling of nausea return again. I knew what Alice was thinking: when the baby went still and stiff, it looked as though it was dead. It looked just like Jasper.

I put the lid on the box and turned to her, ‘Are you okay having him here?’

‘Sure, I’m fine. I was just scared for a moment that I’d broken it that’s all. He’s beautiful John. He’s just so real.’

‘I know.’

I moved towards her and pulled her close to my chest. Her hair smelled of cherry shampoo and I kissed the top of her head. She looked back up at me with those big brown doe eyes of hers and we kissed.

I’m not going to give all the juicy details of what happened next, but we had sex for the first time in weeks and I finally relaxed, wondering how I could have hesitated in bringing this baby home.

I woke up in the night. The clock said 3.30am and the other side of the bed was cold. Alice was missing.

I got up and found her, sat downstairs at the table in the dark, her back turned to me.

‘Ali, you alright?’

She jumped round, ‘Shit John! Don’t sneak up like that. You scared me to death.’

‘Well, I’m not the one roaming the house in the middle of the night. You scared me, shuffling about down here.’

She sighed, ‘I couldn’t sleep. I keep hearing it crying.’

I shook my head, ‘It doesn’t cry Alice. Mr Yamamoto said the developers thought it might put people off.’

She still looked unconvinced so I stood behind her, rubbing her shoulders the way she liked me to, and tried to reassure her.

‘Babies cries are as loud as a road drill. If it cried, which it can’t, I would have heard it too.’

‘Are you sure? I swear John, I heard it.’

I’d already explained to her how it worked. I couldn’t see what else there was left to say. The baby couldn’t cry – end of story. I stopped rubbing her shoulders.

‘It must be someone else’s kid. Next door’s maybe. You know how thin the walls are here. Come on Ali, its late. Just close the damn lid and come back to bed.’

I watched her get up from her seat and close the lid of the box. I followed behind her as she climbed the stairs.

I was knackered the following morning; and like most people, when I’m tired, I’m easily irritated.

I took a shower and got dressed, leaving Alice to take the baby out of the box and make breakfast. When I came downstairs, I found she had taken the red sports bag from the garage and was knelt down with it unzipped, its guts spilling out onto the tatami mat floor.

I knew what she was looking for in there: the blue flannel sleepsuit Jasper had worn. I couldn’t bear to see it again.

‘Why’d you bring these with you? I thought you had thrown those things away,’ I snapped.

But Alice didn’t look up. She was transfixed by the contents of the bag and was pulling them out one after another, like a magician pulling never-ending handkerchiefs from a hat.

‘Those ‘things’ were our son’s clothes that he never got to wear. Of course, I kept them. Why wouldn’t I?’

I stood by, watching her sifting through them as she pulled out each piece of clothing and held it up to inspect each piece for its suitability. All the time, the baby writhed around next to her on the mat, like a baby that was alive.

It dawned on me how absurd the whole thing was. She was sorting out our dead baby’s clothes for a doll and saw nothing wrong with it at all. I could have killed for a cigarette right then, only I knew she would start going on at me if I lit one up in the flat.

‘Ah, here it is!’

She held up the blue flannel sleepsuit.

‘You’re not really going to dress it in that are you?’ I could hear my voice shaking as I spoke.

‘Why not?’ She said.

I wanted to say things like, ‘because it’s wrong. Because that way, you’ll never let go of the past. Because we both know they belonged to Jasper and this is just a lifeless, soulless doll that could never replace our baby boy.’

But of course, I never said anything.

Maybe you think I was being unfair. After all, she was a woman who’d lost a child. What was the point of making a fuss? Its only clothes, right?

Wrong.

In Japan, some believe that everything you own has an imprint of your soul on it, as if some part of you rubs off on it when you touch it. Even clothes. That’s why you won’t find a charity shop anywhere in Tokyo. It’s also one of the reasons why nobody steals anything. Why would you want to own something that had traces of someone else’s soul all over it?

I’ll give you an example: there’s a famous doll called Okiku in Mennenji temple in Iwamizawa, whose owner died in the 1930’s from fever, when she was just three years old. Because the girl carried Okiku everywhere with her, it’s believed that the girl’s spirit possessed the doll the second she died.

But that’s not the worst of it: to this day the doll’s hair keeps on growing. Growing as if the doll were alive and breathing.

So to use your dead child’s clothes to dress a toy…well, you can see how that might be a problem for some people. For me.

After the disagreement over the sleepsuit, I went for a walk around the block to get some air. And by ‘air’ I mean ‘smoke a cigarette.’ I knew how Alice hated my smoking and so I held each drag of the cigarette deep in my lungs until it burned, and when I exhaled, I puffed out smoke rings in defiance.

When I got back to the apartment, I was expecting her to smell the smoke on me and start another fight, but I could hear her in the bathroom retching, and my petty rebellion was quickly forgotten. I felt guilty now that I had left her, even for that short amount of time.

I knocked on the bathroom door, “Ali, you okay?’

‘Yeah, I’m fine.’

She opened the door, her eyes watery and her hair unkempt.

‘I dunno what caused that. I was just sat there with the baby and all of a sudden…’

I pulled her close and kissed the top of her head.

‘I’m sorry I was such an asshole earlier.’

She wriggled out of my grasp, ‘It doesn’t matter. Hey you should see the baby now. It started sitting up while you were gone.’

I don’t know why this bothered me so much. It was an AI after all, which meant was meant to learn and develop and grow. Just like a real baby. Only real babies don’t sit up after just a day.

We went together into the living room and there it was just sat on the mat playing with a ball Alice found in the garage. The sports bag was gone. But it was wearing the blue sleepsuit.

When I walked into the room, it’s head turned and its glassy eyes looked right at me.

‘Amazing, isn’t it?’ Alice knelt down and starting using that baby voice women always reserve for the ears of tiny puppies and small children, ‘aren’t you a clever one? Mama’s special boy.’

The hairs on my neck prickled to watch my wife talk to it like that, as if it was real. Mr Yamamoto had been right; childless women the world over would fall in love with this AI.

And then it dawned on me: after all this time trying to prove to my Boss that I wasn’t just another worthless foreigner, all I had had to do to prove my worth was bring this baby home and tell the company it was a success. I might even get a promotion.

And yet, something about the whole thing made me uneasy.

When Alice gets a craving for something, there’s nothing that will stop her until she gets it. That day she was desperate for some freshly baked donuts.

‘I dunno Ali,’ I moaned, ‘it’s pissing down outside. Can’t we go another day?’

‘You stay here,’ she said tying up her laces. You and the baby can get to know one another.’

When she was gone, the baby gave a giggle. I picked it up and put it on my lap. It didn’t feel like a real baby; it was too heavy. I tipped it upside down and held it by the leg to see what it would do, but it began to frown, so I quickly turned it the right way up. Then I felt stupid for being momentarily manipulated into thinking the damn thing was real.

‘You’re just a piece of metal in there,’ I said to it.

The baby wrinkled its nose at me.

‘You’re not real.’

It gave a grin.

Alice returned with a box of six donuts and she ate them all, one after another.

‘Do you remember the last time I craved these? It was when I was pregnant. Isn’t that weird.’

‘Yeah honey, I guess it is.’

I suppose the alarm bells should have been ringing then. Vomiting. Cravings. It was like that AI was causing her to relive the pregnancy all over again. I started thinking of how I could get out of this. Perhaps I should call my Boss. Just explain that we had lost a baby and that my wife has had severe anxiety and depression and that this could possibly bring about a relapse.

I did think about doing it.

But then I saw how happy she looked.

So I didn’t.

That night, Alice woke me up.

‘I can hear him John,’ she kept saying, ‘can’t you hear him? He’s crying. He’s making that rasping noise. Just like Jasper did.’

I didn’t really know what to say. I mean, I couldn’t hear the noises she claimed she could. And I’d already explained it couldn’t cry. It was impossible. It hadn’t been programmed to.

I held her tight in my arms, ‘Hush now Alice. It’s okay. You must’ve had a bad dream that’s all. Listen.’

She lay there in my arms, both of us listening to the silence.

‘See,’ I said, ‘it was just a dream.’

She wiped away her tears and I stroked her hair until she seemed calmer.

‘I’m so sorry John,’ she whined, ‘I just don’t know what’s happening to me.’

‘You know, if its too much having the baby here, I could power it down. My Boss wouldn’t even have to know.’

‘No,’ she answered far too eagerly, ‘don’t switch him off, John. I’m fine, honestly. It’s like you said, it was just a dream, that’s all.’

She turned onto her side and I lay down on my back, staring at the ceiling, waiting for her to drift off. It was making her ill again, it was clear for anyone to see. Once I heard her snoring, I started to relax a little. I lay there for a while thinking of what to do.

And that’s when I heard it too.

The crying.

For a moment I thought I was imagining it. I looked over at Alice but she was fast asleep.

There it was again.

The sound of a baby crying in our apartment.

My stomach somersaulted and I lay there frozen to the spot. What if the Japanese were right? What if that baby had somehow obtained the spirit of my dead boy by wearing that damn sleepsuit? It was a completely irrational thought, I knew, and yet…

I got up out of bed and slowly, so not to wake Alice, opened the door and listened. The crying had stopped but there was a scuttling sound, like something running across the floorboards.

It couldn’t be the baby, I told myself. That was impossible.

I tiptoed down the stairs, heart pounding. I didn’t switch on the light. I was worried it would wake my already anxious wife. If that happened, how would I explain it? I could hardly say that I heard it crying too. That would tip her right over the edge.

When I got to the bottom step, something rushed past me, giggling.

The baby had obviously learned to walk.

I stepped down and tried to see it in the dim light but it was hiding.

‘Hey baby,’ I whispered to it, ‘dada’s here to see you.’

I heard it rustling around in the bin, pulling out Alice’s donut box and dropping it onto the floor.

I pulled open the drawer in the table and fumbled for the emergency torch we kept there. When I switched it on and flashed it around the room, I could see him. He was standing there in the corner of the room. He was looking straight at me with those glass eyes.

‘Come on now baby,’ I said in a singsong voice, ‘come to Dada.’

He started walking towards me with his arms outstretched and that grin on his face. I picked him up.

‘Gotcha!’

‘John, what are you doing?’

I turned to see the figure of Alice on the stairs.

She switched on the light, and as she did so, I could have sworn the damn thing sunk its teeth into me.

‘Little shit!’ I dropped it and it bounced onto the mat.

Alice dashed over and picked it up, ‘Jesus John! It’s just a baby!’

Just a baby? Like hell, it was.

‘There’s something wrong with it,’ I said to her as calmly as I could manage, ‘there’s a fault somewhere. I need to restart it.’

Alice was staring at me like I was about to commit murder.

‘Don’t be ridiculous John! We’re not turning him off. How could you even suggest that?’

She pulled him closer to her and the baby snuggled into her chest.

‘Give him to me Alice.’

‘No,’ she held onto him even tighter.

I swear, I didn’t mean to hurt her. I mean, I wanted the baby, sure I did, but only because it was making her paranoid. I lunged forward and pulled at her arms, trying to prise them open so I could get to the baby.

‘Stop it John. I won’t let you!’

The baby writhed and wriggled like crazy, but it never made a sound as we fought with one another. I pulled hard until Alice was unable to fight any longer. She let go and I grabbed hold of its head and pulled him away from her.

‘No John, please! Please don’t take my little boy!’

I lay him face down on the table and unzipped his sleepsuit and found the little green light at the base of his spine. I could hear Alice sobbing and begging me not to do it. Believe me, I felt awful, but I knew now I should never have bought the damn thing home in the first place.

I dug the tip of my finger into its spine and held it down until the baby grew stiff and still. The green light went out.

Alice was shrieking and sobbing and so I went to her and tried to hold her close, even though she kept pushing me away.

‘It’s okay,’ I said, ‘It’s okay. It’s over.’

She settled down then and stood weeping quietly into my chest.

But it was then, as I stood comforting her, that I saw it move. The damn thing rolled over onto its back and sat up.

‘Jesus Christ Alice! That thing’s alive.’

I pushed Alice out of the way and picked up the AI again. There was no green glowing light and yet there it was, writhing and wriggling and biting me, fighting to stay alive.

I slammed the thing face down onto the table and pushed down hard with my hand to keep it still. It’s legs and arms flailed wildly and I could hear Alice crying out behind me, ‘John, please John! Stop it John, you’re hurting him!’

Beneath it’s soft velvet skin I could see its blue wires. It was only now that I realised how they looked like human veins underneath that translucent material. I hesitated for a moment and tried to think of another way but there wasn’t one. It’s just a robot, I told myself. Don’t look at it. Don’t listen to Alice. It’s just a robot.

I dug my nails into the soft pink skin on its back and I tore it open.

The baby let out an ear-piercing shriek. One long, shrill note.

Alice stepped forward screaming and shrieking, trying to pull me away but I shook her off, sending her stumbling backwards. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her drop to her knees, and at first I thought she was just upset. Distraught at having her baby taken away from her for a second time.

It’s not real. Just a robot.

I shoved my hand into the cavity in the baby’s back and gripped the cords as tightly as I could and pulled hard. The baby screamed. Try as I might, the wires just would not break. They stretched out, like long laces of licorice. I pulled and I tugged and there was a sickening sound like tendons snapping, as the wires finally came off in my hand.

The baby lay on the table, convulsing and shrieking so loudly I had to place my trembling hands over my ears to block out the noise. Eventually, the baby gave a final whimper and lay still. I waited a moment to check if it moved again, but it was dead this time.

‘I’m so sorry Alice,’ I said, ‘I should never have bought it home. I guess I thought…’

But Alice wasn’t answering.

I turned to see her lay on the floor clutching her stomach.

‘It’s okay Ali, you’ll be okay,’ I said, ‘it’s not like it was real. It wasn’t our Jasper. It was a robot. You’re okay, Alice. Alice?’

But Alice couldn’t answer. She lay on the tatami mat, blood trickling down her legs, spreading out like a tulip beneath her.

The post PseudoPod 599: The Boy with the Glass Eyes appeared first on PseudoPod.

Jun 15 2018

34mins

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Rank #2: PseudoPod 608: A Visit to the Catacombs of Via Altamonvecchi

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“A Visit to the Catacombs of Via Altamonvecchi” was originally published in Karamu (vol. xx, no. 2, Spring 2007), a literary review out of Eastern Illinois University. In addition, I have featured a shortened version in readings around the Chicago area, including at the Twilight Tales reading series at the Red Lion Pub (then the only haunted bar in the Chicago metropolitan area).



This soundbed utilizes the following sources from Freesound.org (https://freesound.org/):
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Long Low Thunder 02 quiet autumn downtown street 03 Low Rumble pasture ambience LONG INT Cave Room tone Mystical Cavern Water Dripping in Cave Ewater_drip-echo stream running under rocks, glamorgan coast, wales Water Through Drain (With Reverb)

A Visit to the Catacombs

by J. Weintraub

Welcome to the catacombs of via Altamontivecchi, the grandest and one of the most ancient in the world. I will be your guide for this special pilgrim’s tour in the English language. If you have booked in advance, you will find the number 34 stamped on your ticket. If you have not booked in advance, you have no business being here. Please return tomorrow in the morning when there will be more tours for you in several languages.

For those of you who have booked in advance, please step inside.

Again, welcome to our tour. I trust you have all signed the waiver and have also had the opportunity to visit the facilities as instructed? Good. The visit will be of long duration, and there will be no opportunities once we are inside. Now, please hand over your tickets. Twelve places only. Thank you. Thank you. Please step inside. Thank you.

Before we proceed further, several cautions need to be spoken. Please stay close to me together so you will hear all of my instructions and absorb all the history and the other observations without the need for repetitions. But more important, you must not stray from the group. This is absolute. The galleries of via Altamontivecchi are quite intricate and are estimated to extend over 15 kilometers, longer than even the great complex of Domitilla outside the walls of Rome. Galleries lead into galleries in a most confusing manner, intersect with upper and lower levels, and at its outermost extremities, to the east and to the south, merge with unsafe pagan columbria linked to the worship of Mithra and Sabazius. If you become lost in these extremities, there is no assurance you will find your way out or be found. In the past century, in fact, an entire class, sixteen students and their professor, disappeared without a trace.

Of course, you might be saying to yourself, “All I need do is to follow my way back towards the light!” But that is not such an easy thing as you might think. I myself once thought in a similar manner, but I mistakenly took a passage that led me in the opposite direction, and when I tried to retrace my steps, I could only see an occasional flickering, like fireflies on a moonless night. Fortunately, I had not penetrated far, but there are sectors where huge crevices have opened, quite deep enough to swallow anyone who has strayed from the guided tour and then gone from there into eternity. Even in ancient days, when the galleries were new and expanding, guides like me were hired and passages were obstructed to prevent visitors and relatives from losing their way and eventually polluting these holy places with their unsanctified corpses.

So, please stay with the group and avoid curious wanderings. We want you to enjoy your visit!

Also, please avoid touching the walls and masonry. The galleries we will be visiting are quite safe, but catacombs require a soft, penetrable rock like this tufa. Slabs can be easily dislodged, and there are pockets just beneath the surface where the rock becomes loose and granular, almost like a liquid. Also, the ancients strengthened many of the vaults and stress points with brick, mortar, and plaster, all subject to erosion. You do not want to risk bringing down several tons of volcanic rock upon our heads for a souvenir.

And yes, to remove anything from the premises, from the smallest stone to an undiscovered fragment of a relic, is a criminal offense. The Altamontivecchi catacombs are a national treasure.

So, we are understood? Are there questions? Good. We can begin our tour. Please hold onto the railing and proceed carefully. The descent is steep and the steps are as old as the catacombs themselves, carved directly from the rock and rubbed smooth by the footsteps of numberless pilgrims just like yourself. Note the small square apertures cut into the walls where oil lamps were placed to light the way for many centuries, depositing an impressive residue of soot and grime along the passageway. Another reason to avoid contact with the walls and to thank providence for the miracle of electricity.

We arrive now at the most recent construction, an extensive marble altar erected shortly after the rediscovery of the catacombs during the so-called Bloody Schism. Here it is said that many sacraments were performed in private until the authorities of the Counter Reformation put a stop to it. Note the fine decorative ornament on the altar stone, with garlands and cornucopia almost pagan in their exuberance.

Now as we turn down this path . . .  and then into this one, you will note that all natural light has vanished behind us. Without the electric lights on the walls and the torch in my hand, we would be in total darkness. Here, along both walls, in the displays behind the glass, are the artifacts that have been found in the tombs and their surrounding spaces. Note the iron, bronze, and ceramic lamps that I mentioned earlier. Also we have the digging tools—mattocks and picks—left by the fossores, numerous offerings—coins, glass vials, earthenware vessels—and mementoes of the dead—rings, bracelets, and brooches, and even this toy doll, carved from ivory, found embedded in the stucco sealing the grave of the eight-year-old Aurelia Hyacinth.

In the far corner, you see pottery shards, cooking pots, stone fetishes, and iron utensils of great antiquity. These were found at the end of the last century with the collapse of a wall during an excavation that revealed behind it a cavern hidden since Neolithic times. Among the shards and cookware were fragments of human bones, also scorched like the pottery. It is unknown whether this was the result of primitive funerary practices or, as one radical archaeologist suggests, signs of ritual cannibalism among our native ancestors. In either case, it speaks of the long habitation of the site and its ancient ceremonial significance.

Now, as we turn into the central gallery, look up to the roof of the vault. Near what was once a skylight, you see the great image of the Majestas Domini, thought to have been painted in the late third century. Scholars tell us that since this is the first known portrayal of Christ Enthroned surrounded by a nimbus—a device typical of pagan iconography–the painting is likely to have been superimposed upon an earlier fresco of Helios, God of the Sun.

It is also exactly here at this spot, just where that young lady is standing—no, no, Miss, you don’t need to move —where Tomas the shepherd fell through that very skylight above us to his death. The opening had been sealed long before to prevent such an unfortunate incident, but perhaps several months of floods and the seepage led to its collapse. We can only hope that enough natural light followed from his fall to illuminate the magnificent image above him as Tomas lay there on his broken back, dying.

Tomas was given credit for the re-discovery of the Altamontivecchi catacombs, but in truth, it was his herd of abandoned sheep and his barking dog that brought the villagers to the site. And if it had not been for the intercession of Father Adrian, now beatified by the Holy See, the opening may have been quickly resealed by the superstitious peasants and the catacombs again forgotten. A simple parish priest, Father Adrian was also a learned man and deeply committed to the defense of the Church against a violent iconoclasm then wreaking havoc and bloodshed across the countryside. What a superb witness then is this striking vision above us to the importance and power of the image for the first believers, the founders of the true Church.

As we descend deeper into the earliest parts of the complex and turn here, we arrive at the Corridor of the Martyrs, the most important of our pilgrim sites. Yes, it is quite impressive, isn’t it? Row upon row, tier upon tier of burial slots, graves like shelves or berths on a ship carved into the rock. They are called loculi and they extend seemingly endlessly into the darkness, ample evidence of the ferocity of the third- and fourth-century persecutions, particularly during the reigns of Valerian and Diocletian.

No, all of the loculi here were emptied of their remains long ago, some the victims of barbarian plunderings, others translocated to the surface where they could be venerated more publicly, and still others transported far beyond our borders during the eighth and ninth centuries when the market for relics was especially active and profitable.

And, of course, not all of these are the graves of martyrs or saints. Most of the epitaphs and graffiti were inscribed years after the burials, and entire communities wished to be entombed near those who could intercede in their behalf in the world to come. But note the simplicity and starkness of the arrangement and the lack of ornament or display, testimony to the modest circumstances of the original believers, but also the willingness of those in higher stations to humble themselves as part of a congregation before God.

But still, martyrs and saints were laid to rest here, and we know for a fact that in this tiny niche the holy Palladian once reposed, and in these six graves, one atop the other, lay the six Coronati—Praetorian guards converted, brutally tortured, and thereafter crowned with the gift of martyrdom. Here, at my eyelevel, was once the saintly Petros, and in this narrow slot just below, lay his skin, now venerated in Budapest. In here the holy Valeria was interred, although her head was claimed for via Altamarina. Here Palomon the Elder and by his side Palomon the Younger, or at least those parts that could be retrieved from the horses. Posidius. Pontesilea, Aprius—said to be a follower of the anti-Pope Novatian—Dalmatius, Onager, Vitalia, Rubilla, Viktor, and the one, two, three, four, five sons of Renata, and above, the blessed Renata herself. Beneath this cavity, you can still see engraved the single word Stercorius, or “abandoned in garbage,” although whether this is the name of the martyr or simply where his remains were first deposited is unknown.

These two cavities, when opened, first seemed empty, but the inscriptions and the traces of paint seemingly depicting flames on the arcosolium of this one convinced the ecclesiastical authorities that the heavy residue of ash found inside was none other than St. Eventius. In the other one? In there nothing more than two pairs of pincers were found, but it was believed that the shreds of flesh soldered into the grooves of the prongs once belonged to St. Marcella.

Farther on down the loculi become more sparse, but the graves increase again in number as we move into the latter half of the fourth century with its multitude of heterodoxies, and then at the end of the passageway, behind the grating, the surprisingly ornate ossuarium of the Heresiarch Ostian, who was interred here with the bones of 200 of his slaughtered followers. If you visit the smaller complex at via Altamarina, you will see the crypticum of the Archbishop Fabian, who has been credited with the extermination of the cult.

Now, allow me to turn on the interior light, and as you pass the grating, look toward the lunettes of the arcosolium just above the altar, and you will see a series of remarkably realistic chthonic and zoomorphic representations painted by an anonymous Thracian artist, who, if the inscription is to be believed, was sympathetic to the sect and eventually joined them here.

Oh, my . . . oh, no . . . Don’t be frightened. Please, Madam. . . . This happens on occasion. Power failures like these are common in the late summer. Or perhaps there’s been a short circuit. The severe humidity. Here, let me try something. This switch just over here. . . . Sometimes after an overload, we can simply click it off—there—and then wait a moment before I click it back on. . . . There. . . . No, that’s not it. I suppose it is a power failure. We have had a very oppressive summer, and I’m sure the lights, air conditioners, refrigerators, and such above ground are all in the black, too, just like here below. But still we must proceed, and thankfully, I have the light of my torch to guide us. The batteries were replaced several weeks ago, so we should be just fine. But please, stay close to me as we move on.

These stairs will lead us to the next level below and into the fifth century. I will shine the light on the steps, but be sure to take hold of the railing as you descend. Yes, I know it is a bit unsteady from the porous nature of the rock here, but it will be perfectly safe if you proceed carefully. . . . Here, I have reached bottom, and if you will first gather around me, we will continue into the gallery.

On this level, we witness the enormous growth of what was once a tiny congregation of true believers now spread across the land despite the state’s attempts to eradicate them. Again, row upon row, tier upon tier of graves, excavated at considerable cost, yet worth the expense to those who wished to be interred nearby the saints and martyrs of previous generations.

Here much of the original plaster and terracotta tiles are still in place, along with the remains interred inside. Apparently this level was unknown to the barbarians and others who vandalized the tombs. But they would not have found much of value had they in fact penetrated this far. These were ordinary folk, their bones not worthy of public veneration, the mementoes interred with them—copper jewelry, vials of unguents, small coins, and toys for the children— all of little artistic or monetary worth. But still a unique site since many of the epitaphs are as visible as when they were inscribed into the plaster. See HIC REQUIESCIT here, and here HIC REQUIESCIT, and here HIC REQUIESCIT, and up and down the gallery HIC REQUIESCIT, HIC REQUIESCIT, HIC REQUIESCIT. Not very creative, these ordinary folk, but an impressive display, nevertheless.

As we turn towards the chamber reserved for your group, the corridor becomes very narrow. Please single file here, and you might want to place your hands on the shoulders of the person in front of you until we reach the great Cryptoporticus of Danilo at the Spelunca Magna.

Now attention, please, as we turn here. The rubble you see on your right spilling into your path seals a transverse gallery that once led to the famous Capella of the Good Shepherd—all destroyed when the passage and several others collapsed five years ago last month during the previous eruption of Altamontivecchi and the ensuing earthquake. An unredeemable loss. By the by, I hope you have had the opportunity to visit our Altamontivecchi volcano during the evening time. A spectacular display, particularly around the crater where the lava flow is especially impressive.

Here you see the plaque recently dedicated to the Dacian pilgrims who were awaiting the return of their guide when the first tremors struck. Unfortunately, my good friend Nicolo, who was still on the surface, was killed instantly in the collapse of the basilica, and with so much chaos and devastation above, little thought was given to those awaiting Nicolo here below. Of course, it probably was no matter, since the galleries and cubiculi hereabouts seemed to have disappeared completely. At least, when shafts were sunk from above, they struck nothing but rock, and excavations here were abandoned in face of the tons of solid granite that had tumbled into the passageway.

It was no accident, some superstitions people say, that the incident occurred in the vicinity of the Cubiculum of Danilo, and here we are. Note the brick masonry on the vault, required to support the tufa in this sector, and the plaster surfaces where fragments of color from the frescoes that once appeared here can still be seen. Over there, behind the grating, is the throne of Danilo carved from solid rock and where bits of gold leaf still sparkle in the light of my torch.

On either side are the seats occupied by the catechist and presiding deacon, and the low stone benches were probably set aside for the instruction of the catechumens. No one knows what rites were performed here, although there are suggestions of a corrupt Eucharist liturgy. The paintings were largely destroyed during the purifications of the late fifth century, but note the remnants of la banquet scene on the vault, either a celestial or diabolical convivium, and over there is what might be the earliest representation of the devil. You can barely see the gaping mouth of the demon amidst the roaring flames of hell, although some scholars say it is rather the maw of the leviathan about to swallow Jonas and the flames are merely waves.

Behind the throne is the crypt where the sarcophagus of Danilo was to rest. The walls here, too were once covered with frescoes and grotesqueries, but in this instance even the plaster was scraped from the masonry, and nothing remains. Of course, the great Apostate was never interred here, his ashes scattered to the four winds, but it is said by superstitious people that his spirit animates these corridors when the sun disappears in the west.

Now we descend in this direction, and please form again into a very narrow single line. Careful. The ground is uneven, and you will notice a trembling at your feet as we cross over a very swift subterranean river. The current is especially strong this year because of the heavy summer rains, and this explains the thick moisture on the walls and the chill in the air. No, no, Madam, that was only a cold draft, I’m sure,  that passed over your feet. From the river, probably. There are no vermin down here.

And here we arrive at our terminus. This chamber is called the Capella of Peace, from the inscription IN PACE AETERNA engraved over the portal.

All of you come inside. You must now remove the robes from your packs and put them on. There are additional robes on the shelf there if you neglected to bring one. Place your packs, your guidebooks, and your other belongings in the corner here. They will be safe.

Be sure all of your garments are well covered. The loculi here are clean–all remains and offerings, of course, have been removed—but dust and dirt continue to erode from the walls. Use the hoods to protect your heads, but careful not to wrap it around your nose or mouth. It will be close enough for you inside as is.

All the loculi here are about the same size, but the elderly among you may want to choose the ones closest to the ground. There are stepladders about for those of you who can climb to a higher tier and are not uncomfortable with the sensation of height.

No, I’m sorry. You must all find a place for yourself. Yes, I know, people do change their minds, but there is nothing I can do about it now. You have come this far and you must carry on to the end. No, I cannot take anyone back under any circumstances. You must find your place here. There are no benches or resting spots nearby, and besides, you must not leave the chamber in my absence, especially now that we are suffering through a power failure. I assure you that this is an experience that will change you forever. To meditate among our ancient martyrs and saints in this famed locus sanctus, to join spiritually a community of primitive believers and the pilgrims and people of God who followed in their path and acted as you are about to act, this is a privilege permitted only to a few and many have waited in vain for years to participate. As the graffito over there  reminds us: Intra limina sanctorum, quod multi cupiunt et rari accipiunt.

So, take my hand, and you can slide in right here. That’s right, on your back with your arms crossed over your chest. A nice fit. Yes, I know it feels tight. It often feels tight. Our ancestors were smaller than we are, and they usually arrived here in a state of considerable desiccation. But this will help you to remain still. You must not move or shift your position. You certainly do not want to wedge yourself inside, by trying, say, to turn onto your stomach, and be sure, all of you, to avoid sudden movements. Tufa is soft rock, but it is rock nevertheless, and the mattocks have left sharp ridges.

Those tremors? I am sure they are no more than the vibrations from the river running beneath us nearby.

Now, all of you, now that you have found your places and are comfortable, breathe slowly and quietly. If you become anxious, concentrate on breathing more slowly, regularly, silently—otherwise, you will feel as if you are suffocating, which only contributes to your anxiety. Respect the meditations of those around you and the sanctity of the place. Yes, I know. I have participated in this very chamber twice myself. I know how tight it can feel, and I, too, have tasted in my mouth the dirt and the grit of the place. But that is all part of the experience we promised you, as is this. . . . There. I have extinguished my torch, and you find yourself within a darkness so profound it is palpable. Do not be afraid. Study the darkness. Look into the darkness until it becomes one with you and you are one with it, separate from every living thing in the world above.

I can find my way out in the darkness. Ignore the quiet breath of your neighbors and allow the silence to envelop you as I leave.

I should be back before very long.

The post PseudoPod 608: A Visit to the Catacombs of Via Altamonvecchi appeared first on PseudoPod.

Aug 17 2018

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Rank #3: PseudoPod 687: The Yellow Cat

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“The Yellow Cat” originally published in Hutchinson’s Mystery Story Magazine, June 1924



Trophy RPG: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/gauntlet/trophy-rpg?ref=discovery&term=trophy

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The Walken Puss In Boots: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GEjKmsMkPKQ

The Yellow Cat

by Michael Joseph

It all began when Grey was followed home, inexplicably enough, by the strange, famished yellow cat. The cat was thin with large, intense eyes which gleamed amber in the forlorn light of the lamp on the street corner. It was standing there as Grey passed, whistling dejectedly, for he had had a depressing run of luck at Grannie’s tables, and it made a slight piteous noise as it looked up at him. Then it followed at his heels, creeping along as though it expected to be kicked unceremoniously out of the way.

Grey did, indeed, make a sort of half-threatening gesture when, looking over his shoulder, he saw the yellow cat behind.

“If you were a black cat,” he muttered, “I’d welcome you—but get out!”

The cat’s melancholy amber eyes gleamed up at him, but it made no sign and continued to follow. This would have annoyed Grey in his already impatient humour, but he seemed to find a kind of savage satisfaction in the fact that he was denied even the trifling consolation of a good omen. Like all gamblers, he was intensely superstitious, although he had had experience in full measure of the futility of all supposedly luckbringing mascots. He carried a monkey’s claw sewn in the lining of his waistcoat pocket, not having the courage to throw it away. But this wretched yellow cat that ought to have been black did not irritate him as might have been expected.

He laughed softly; the restrained, unpleasant laugh of a man fighting against misfortune.

“Come on, then, you yellow devil; we’ll sup together.”

He took his gloveless hand from his coat pocket and beckoned to the animal at his heels; but it took as little notice of his gesture of invitation as it had of his menacing foot a moment before. It just slid along the greasy pavement, covering the ground noiselessly, not deviating in the slightest from the invisible path it followed, without hesitation.

It was a bitterly cold, misty night, raw and damp. Grey shivered as he thrust his hand back into the shelter of his pocket and hunched his shoulders together underneath the thin coat that afforded but little protection against the cold.

With a shudder of relief he turned into the shelter of the courtyard which lay between the icy street and the flight of stairs which led to his room. As he stumbled numbly over the rough cobblestones of the yard he suddenly noticed that the yellow cat had disappeared.

He was not surprised and gave no thought whatever to the incident until, a few minutes later, at the top of the ramshackle stairs, the feeble light of a hurricane lamp revealed the creature sitting, or rather lying, across the threshold of his door.

He took an uncertain step backward. He said to himself: “That’s odd.” The cat looked up at him impassively with brooding, sullen eyes. He opened the door, stretching over the animal to turn the crazy handle.

Silently the yellow cat rose and entered the shadowy room. There was something uncanny, almost sinister in its smooth, noiseless movements. With fingers that shook slightly, Grey fumbled for matches, struck a light and, closing the door behind him, lit the solitary candle.

He lived in this one room, over a mews which had become almost fashionable since various poverty-stricken people, whose names still carried some weight with the bourgeois tradesmen of this Mayfair backwater, had triumphantly installed themselves; and Grey turned it skilfully to account when he spoke with casual indifference of ‘the flat’ he occupied, ‘next to Lady Susan Tyrrell’s’.

Grey, although he would never have admitted it, was a cardsharper and professional gambler. But even a cardsharper needs a little ordinary luck. Night after night he watched money pass into the hands of ‘the pigeons’, ignorant, reckless youngsters, and foolish old women who, having money to burn, ought by all the rules of the game to have lost. Yet when playing with him, Grey, a man respected even among the shabby fraternity of those who live by their wits, they won. He had turned to roulette, but even with a surreptitious percentage interest in the bank he had lost. His credit was exhausted. Grannie herself had told him he was a regular Jonah. He was cold, hungry and desperate. Presently his clothes, the last possession, would betray him, and no longer would he be able to borrow the casual trifle that started him nightly in his desperate bout with fortune.

His room contained a wooden bed and a chair. A rickety table separated them. The chair served Grey as a wardrobe; on the table stood a candle with a few used matches which he used to light the cheap cigarettes he smoked in bed; the grease had a habit of adhering to the tobacco when the candle was used, and Grey was fastidious. The walls were bare save for a cupboard, a pinned-up Sporting Life Racing Calendar and two cheap reproductions of Kirchner’s midinettes. There was no carpet on the floor. A piece of linoleum stretched from the empty grate to the side of the bed.

At first Grey could not see the cat, but the candle, gathering strength, outlined its shadow grotesquely against the wall. It was crouched on the end of the bed.

He lighted one of the used matches and lit the small gas-ring which was the room’s sole luxury. Gas was included in the few shillings he paid weekly for rent; consequently Grey used it for warmth. He seldom used it to cook anything, as neither whisky (which he got by arrangement with one of Grannie’s waiters), bread nor cheese, which formed his usual diet, require much cooking.

The cat moved and, jumping noiselessly on to the floor, cautiously approached the gas-ring, by the side of which it stretched its lean yellowish body. Very softly but plaintively it began to mew.

Grey cursed it. Then he turned to the cupboard and took out a cracked jug. He moved the bread on to his own plate and poured out the little milk it contained in the shallow bread-plate.

The cat drank, not greedily but with the fierce rapidity which betokens hunger and thirst. Grey watched it idly as he poured whisky into a cup. He drank, and refilled the cup. He then began to undress, carefully, in order to prolong the life of his worn dinner-jacket.

The cat looked up. Grey, taking off his shirt, beneath which, having no vest, he wore another woollen shirt, became uncomfortably aware of its staring yellow eyes. Seized with a crazy impulse, he poured the whisky from his cup into the remainder of the milk in the plate.

“Share and share alike,” he cried. “Drink, you—”

Then the yellow cat snarled at him; the vilest, loathsome sound; and Grey for a moment was afraid. Then he laughed, as if at himself for allowing control to slip, and finished undressing, folding the garments carefully, and hanging them on the chair.

The cat went back to its place at the foot of the bed, its eyes gleaming warily in Grey’s direction. He restrained his impulse to throw it out of the room and clambered between the rough blankets without molesting it.

By daylight the cat was an ugly misshapen creature. It had not moved from the bed. Grey regarded it with amused contempt.

Usually the morning found him profoundly depressed and irritable. For some unaccountable reason he felt now almost light-hearted.

He dressed, counted his money and decided to permit himself the luxury of some meager shopping in the adjacent Warwick Market, which supplied the most expensive restaurant proprietors with the cheapest food. Nevertheless, it was an accommodating spot for knowledgeable individuals like Grey.

The cat, still crouching on the bed, made no attempt to follow him, and he closed the door as softly as its erratic hinges would allow, aware that the cat’s eyes still gazed steadily in his direction.

In the market, he obeyed an impulse to buy food for the cat, and at the cost of a few pence added a portion of raw fish to his purchases. On the way home he cursed himself for a fool, and would have thrown the fish away, the clumsy paper wrapping having become sodden with moisture, when he was hailed by a voice he had almost forgotten.

“Grey! Just the man I want to see!”

Grey greeted him with a fair show of amiability, although, if appearance were any indication, the other was even less prosperous than himself. He, too, had been an habitue of Grannie’s in the old days, but had long since drifted out on the sea of misfortune. Despite his shabby appearance, he turned to Grey and said: “You’ll have a drink ?” Then, noting Grey’s dubious glance, he laughed and added: “It’s on me all right. I’ve just touched lucky.”

A little later Grey emerged from the public-house on the corner the richer by five pounds, which the other had insisted on lending him in return for past favours. What exactly the past favours had been, Grey was too dazed to inquire; as far as he could recollect he had always treated the man with scant courtesy. He did not even remember his name.

He was still trying to remember who the man was when he climbed the stairs. He knew him well enough, for Grey was the type who never forgets a face. It was when his eyes alighted on the yellow cat that he suddenly remembered.

The man was Felix Mortimer. And Felix Mortimer had shot himself during the summer!

At first Grey tried to assure himself that he had made a mistake. Against his better judgment he tried to convince himself that the man merely bore a strong resemblance to Felix Mortimer. But at the back of his mind he knew.

Anyway, the five-pound note was real enough.

He methodically placed the fish in a saucepan and lit the gas-ring.

Presently the cat was eating, in that curious, deliberate way it had drunk the milk the night before. Its emaciated appearance plainly revealed that it was starving; yet it devoured the fish methodically, as though now assured of a regular supply.

Grey, turning the five-pound note in his hand, wondered whether the cat had after all changed his luck. But his thoughts kept reverting to Felix Mortimer…

The next few days left him in no doubt. At Grannie’s that night, fortune’s pendulum swung back unmistakably. He won steadily. From roulette he turned to chemin de fer elated to find that his luck held good.

“Your luck’s changed with a vengeance!” said one of the ‘regulars’ of the shabby genteel saloon.

“With a vengeance,” echoed Grey, and paused; wondering with the superstition of the born gambler if there were significance in the phrase.

He left Grannie’s the richer by two hundred odd pounds.

His success was the prelude to the biggest slice of luck, to use his own phrase, that he had ever known. He gambled scientifically, not losing his head, methodically banking a proportion of his gains each morning; planning, scheming, striving to reach that high-water mark at which, so he told himself with the gambler’s timeworn futility, he would stop and never gamble again.

Somehow he could not make up his mind to leave the poverty-stricken room in the fashionable mews. He was terribly afraid it would spell a change of luck. He tried to improve it, increase its comfort, but it was significant that he bought first a basket and a cushion for the yellow cat.

For there was no doubt in his mind that the cat was the cause of his sudden transition from poverty to prosperity. In his queer, intensely superstitious mind, the yellow cat was firmly established as his mascot.

He fed it regularly, waiting on it himself as though he were its willing servant. He made a spasmodic attempt to caress it, but the cat snarled savagely at him and, frightened, he left it alone. If the cat ever moved from the room he never saw it go; whenever he went in or came out the cat was there, watching him with its gleaming amber eyes.

He accepted the situation philosophically enough. He would talk to the cat of himself, his plans for the future, the new people he met—for money had speedily unlocked more exalted doors than Grannie’s—all this in the eloquence derived from wine and solitude, he would pour out into the unmoved ears of the cat, crouching at the foot of the bed. And then, without daring to speak of it, he would think of Felix Mortimer and the gift that had proved the turning-point of his fortunes.

The creature watched him impassively, contemptuously indifferent to his raving or his silence. But the weird menage continued, and Grey’s luck held good.

The days passed and he became ambitious. He was now within reach of that figure which he fondly imagined would enable him to forsake his precarious existence. He told himself that he was now, to all intents and purposes, safe. And he decided to move into more civilized and appropriate surroundings.

Nevertheless, he himself procured an expensive wicker contraption to convey the yellow cat from the garret to his newly acquired and, by contrast, luxurious maisonnette. It was furnished in abominable taste, but the reaction from sheer poverty had its effect. And then he had begun to drink more than was good for a man who required a cool head and a steady nerve for at least part of a day which was really night.

One day he had cause to congratulate himself on his new home. For he met, for the first time in his thirty odd years of life, a woman. Now Grey divided women into two classes. There were ‘the regulars’—soulless creatures with the gambler’s fever and crook’s alphabet—and ‘pigeons’, foolish women, some young, most of them old, who flourished their silly but valuable plumage to be plucked by such as he.

But Elise Dyer was different. She stirred his pulses with a strange, exquisite sensation. Her incredible fair hair, flaxen as waving corn, her fair skin, her deep violet eyes and her delicate carmine mouth provoked him into a state of unaccustomed bewilderment.

They talked one night of mascots. Grey, who had never mentioned the yellow cat to a soul, whispered that he would, if she cared, show her the mascot that had brought him his now proverbial good luck. The girl agreed, with eager enthusiasm, to his diffident suggestion to go with him to his flat; and he, in his strange simplicity, stammered that she would do him honour. He had forgotten that Elise Dyer knew him for a rich man.

Elated by his triumph, he paid her losses and called for champagne. The girl plied him skillfully with wine, and presently he was more drunk than he had been since the beginning of his era of prosperity.

They took a cab to the flat. Grey felt that he had reached the pinnacle of triumph. Life was wonderful, glorious! What did anything matter now ?

He switched on the light and the girl crossed his threshold. The room which they entered was lavishly illuminated, the lights shaded into moderation by costly fabrics. The room, ornate and over-furnished, reflected money. The girl gave a gasp of delight.

For the first time the cat seemed aware of something unusual. It stretched itself slowly and stood up, regarding them with a fierce light in its eyes.

The girl screamed.

“For God’s sake take it away!” she cried. “I can’t bear it! I can’t be near it. Take that damned cat away!” And she began to sob wildly, piteously, retreating towards the door.

At this Grey lost all control and, cursing wildly, shouting bestial things at the oncoming animal, seized it by the throat.

“Don’t…don’t cry, dearie,” panted Grey, holding the cat; “I’ll settle this swine soon enough. Wait for me!” And he staggered through the open door.

Grey ran through the deserted streets. The cat had subsided under the clutch of his fingers and lay inert, its yellowish fur throbbing. He scarcely knew where he was going. All he realized was an overwhelming desire to be rid of the tyranny of this wretched creature he held by the throat.

At last he knew where he was going. Not far from Grey’s new establishment ran the Prince’s canal, that dark, sluggish stream that threads its way across the fashionable residential district of the outlying west. To the canal he ran; and without hesitation he threw the yellow cat into the water.

The next day he realized what he had done. At first he was afraid, half hoping that the superstitious spasm of fear would pass. But a vivid picture swam before his eyes, the broken surface of a sluggish dream…

“You’re a coward,” she taunted him. “Why don’t you act like a man ? Go to the tables and see for yourself that you can still win in spite of your crazy cat notions!”

At first he refused, vehemently; but it gradually dawned on him that therein lay his chance of salvation. Once let him throw down the gauntlet and win and his peace of mind would be assured.

That night he received a vociferous welcome on his return to the Green Baize Club.

It was as he feared. He lost steadily.

Then suddenly an idea came to him. ‘Supposing the cat were still alive ? Why hadn’t he thought of that before ? Why, there was a saying that every cat had nine lives! For all he knew it might have swum safely to the bank and got away.

His feverish impulse crystallized into action. He hurriedly left the club and beckoned urgently to a passing taxicab.

After what seemed interminable delay he reached the spot where he had madly flung the cat away from him. The stillness of the water brought home to him the futility of searching for the animal here. This was not the way to set to work.

The thing preyed on his mind in the days that followed. Exhaustive inquiries failed to discover the least trace of the yellow cat.

Night after night he went to the tables, lured there by the maddening thought that if only he could win he would drug the torment and be at peace. But he lost…

And then a strange thing happened.

One night, returning home across a deserted stretch of the park, he experienced a queer, irresistible impulse to lift his feet from the grass and make for the gravel path. He resented the impulse, fought against it; he was cold and worn out, and by cutting across the grass he would save many minutes of weary tramping. But the thing like a mysterious blind instinct persisted, and in the end he found himself running, treading gingerly on the sodden grass.

He did not understand why this had happened to him.

The next day Grey did not get out of his bed until late in the afternoon.

He crossed the room in search of his dressing-gown and caught sight of himself in the glass of his wardrobe. Only then did he realize that he was clambering over the floor with his head near the carpet, his hands outstretched in front of him. He stood upright with difficulty and reached a shaking hand for brandy.

It took him two hours to struggle into his clothes, and by the time he was ready to go out it was nearly dark. He crept along the street. The shops were closing. He saw nothing of them until he reached the corner where he halted abruptly, with a queer sensation of intense hunger. On the cold marble before him lay unappetizing slabs of raw fish. His body began to quiver with suppressed desire. Another moment and nothing could have prevented him seizing the fish in his bare hands, when the shutters of the shop dropped noisily across the front of the sloping marble surface.

Grey knew that something had happened, that he was very ill. Now that he could not see the vision of the yellow cat, his mind was a blank. Somehow he retraced his footsteps and got back to his room.

The bottle of brandy stood where he had left it. He had not turned on the light, but he could see it plainly. He dragged it to his lips.

With a crash it went to the floor, while Grey leapt into the air, savage with nausea. He felt that he was choking. With an effort he pulled himself together, to find that it was beyond his power to stop the ghastly whining sound that issued from his lips. He tried to lift himself on to the bed, but in sheer exhaustion collapsed on the floor, where he lay still in an attitude not human.

The room lightened with the dawn and a new day passed before the thing on the floor moved. Something of the clarity of vision which comes to starving men now possessed him. He stared at his hands.

The fingers seemed to have withered: the nails had almost disappeared, leaving a narrow streak of hornish substance forming in their place. He tore himself frantically towards the window. In the fading light he saw that the backs of his hands were covered with a thin, almost invisible surface of coarse, yellowish fur.

Unimaginable horrors seized him. He knew now that the scarlet thread of his brain was being stretched to breaking-point. Presently it would snap…

Unless—unless. The yellow cat alone could save him. To this last human thought he clung, in an agony of terror.

Unconscious of movement, he crept swiftly into the street, his shapeless eyes peering in the darkness which surrounded him. He groped his way stealthily towards the one place which the last remnant of his brain told him might yield the secret of his agony.

Down the silent bank he scrambled headlong, towards the still water. The dawn’s pale radiance threw his shadow into a grotesque pattern. On the edge of the canal he halted, his hands embedded in the sticky crumbling earth, his head shaking, his eyes searching in agonized appeal, into the depths of the motionless water.

There he crouched, searching, searching…

And there in the water he saw the yellow cat.

He stretched out the things that were his arms, while the yellow cat stretched out its claws to enfold him in the broken mirror of the water.

The post PseudoPod 687: The Yellow Cat appeared first on PseudoPod.

Jan 31 2020

36mins

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Rank #4: PseudoPod 571: Haunted

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This story was originally published in Issue 31 of Fireside Fiction in February 2016

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Spoiler Inside
SelectShow
Domestic Violence

Haunted

by Sarah Gailey

Read the full text here.

The post PseudoPod 571: Haunted appeared first on PseudoPod.

Dec 01 2017

40mins

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Rank #5: PseudoPod 698: Of Marrow and Abomination

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PseudoPod 698: Of Marrow and Abomination is a PseudoPod original.

Spoiler Inside SelectShow Montauk: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montauk_Project
USS Eldridge: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Eldridge#Philadelphia_Experiment
Gideon Falls: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gideon_Falls
Tanis: http://tanispodcast.com/

Of Marrow and Abomination

by Morgan Sylvia

I am very young when I first dream of the ruined barn.

The barn is nothing more than a burnt-out husk in the northern woods. It stands alone in an overgrown meadow, a blackened shell of rotted shingles and charred, cracked timbers, its weathered grey boards standing in stark contrast to the golden hayfields around it. The northeast is peppered with such ruins. Built by hand, not machine, the old barns are silent, forgotten monuments of a lost age, one where horses, not cars, carried men through the thick, tangled woods, and where woodstoves rather than furnaces kept away the biting winter cold.

It was initially repurposed as a numbers station, a clandestine radio station that broadcasts coded messages to spies via short-wave radio transmissions. Later, it became something else. A black site, of sorts. By then, the Cold War had ended, and we had clawed our way greedily into the information age.

I wonder now if they understood what they were doing, those Cold War doctors with their shiny shoes and thick glasses and slicked-back hair. They chose this spot, no doubt, because it was both isolated and unremarkable. They wanted the space and freedom to explore their madnesses, their alchemy, far away from prying eyes, in a place where only beasts and forgotten ghosts could see. I wonder if it ever occurred to them that the abominations created here would never be contained. They saw themselves, no doubt, as pioneers, inventors. In truth, they were sorcerers as much as scientists, heirs to Crowley and Agathodaemon as much as to Newton and Einstein and Hawking.

They are dead now. The darklings gnaw on their skeletons.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions and the corpses of men like them.

And of her? The dead thing that waits in the shadows below the barn’s charred roof, dreaming of static and decay?

This is the tale of her awakening, as much as it is of my own.

She was human once, first an orphan—like me—and then a young nurse jumping at a job that paid in a week more than she usually made in a year. She likely did not think overmuch about the papers of confidentiality, the releases she signed, though those of us born to the world of cell phones and internet scams would have seen red flags in the convoluted language and restrictions. She—like her cohorts—was bound to secrecy. Her name was Anna, but they relegated her identity to a number.

She isn’t in the early dreams. Actually, there are no people in the initial dreams. No animals. No sound. Nothing happens, at first. The visions are only fleeting glimpses of a single moment in time. Barn and landscape remain static and unchanging, consistent as a painting, untouched by wind or weather. Yet even as a child, I sense something sinister about the barn’s blackened shadows and rotted beams.

The dreams follow me through a succession of foster homes and boarding schools. Over time, the scene slowly comes to life. The grass moves beneath charnel winds. Seasons change. Strange colors shimmer in the sky. Then the barn begins dragging me toward it. My feet hover over the earth, and I am drawn to the ruin like a fish caught in a line, pulled ever closer, dream by dream. As I approach the barn door, the world comes alive. In summer, I move through swarming clouds of shiny green flies. In winter, snow and freezing rain part before me.

I sense that the shadows contain something hideous, something monstrous. Dread flows through my body like molten lead, tickling my stomach, pouring salt into my limbs. But I am powerless, an insect caught in a web.

In one dream, a single fly approaches me on iridescent wings. The buzz it produces tears another barrier loose. Where there was once only silence, now there is sound. White-noise static rises up around me, deafening, filling the air. A disembodied voice, rattling like dry bones, slips through my thoughts, repeating a series of numbers again and again.

Four six seven nine

Four six seven nine

Four six seven nine

A pale figure appears in the crooked doorway. She wears a necklace of teeth and a tattered nurse’s dress that was once white, but is now a dusty, colorless grey. Dull, matted hair falls over her shoulders in thick ropy strands. Her face is only a skull.

I wake gasping for breath, my heart pounding.

Every night, the dream becomes more real. I withdraw from my friends, isolate myself, submerge myself in art. I live not in flesh and blood, but in paper and pencil, ink and paint.

The dreams continue.

I don’t yet understand what she is, a ghost trapped in static, a soul caught between two planes. But I soon learn that she is not bound to the rules of the natural world. Mirrors reflect her face, rather than mine. I see her walking behind me, a reflection cast in a classroom mirror or a gym pool. Her eyes are sometimes milky and clouded, sometimes black and empty, sometimes blood red and wet. I grow accustomed to the way the air chills when she appears. I learn her scent, which is damp soil and cinder.

Eventually, the dream brings me into the barn.

It looks, at first, as one would expect. Sunlight filters through spaces between weathered boards. Piles of debris obscure the dirt floor. In corners, and in the bright roofless area, patches of weeds struggle toward the sun. Oddly, the building’s interior has been reinforced with stronger wood. This isn’t to make it functional. The barn will never again contain horses or cattle, gentle creatures with eyes like pools of chocolate, their soft whiskered noses sniffing for treats. It is but a prop, a cover for whatever waits beneath the trap door in its center. The support is only to keep it standing.

The transmission changes.

She quotes ancient Druid bards, leaving the words of Amergin etched into the frost on my window as winter presses against the walls. I am God who fashions Fire for a Head. Who but I announces the Ages of the Moon? Something in my atoms shrivels and changes. My soul withers and blackens at the sound of her voice.

In the dream, the sky turns red.

One night I wake screaming, gasping for air, my entire body numb, only to find that the dream has bled into my reality. A single, charred piece of wood sits on my nightstand. Beside it rests a clavicle. I stare at these objects for a long time, questions bubbling up through my brain. The clavicle is misshapen. The bone bulges, revealing a seam where the bones grew fast and unnatural.

I open the window. A warm summer wind moves the curtains. Everything smells of blood and rust. I toss the things into the alley below. Feral dogs immediately investigate.

When I flip on the TV, her laughter escapes a newscaster’s mouth.

Some boundary has been breached. I am never able to identify what line I crossed, what date or milestone was reached. But after that, I often hear static, like the sound of snow on a television set. Behind it, her disembodied voice reads sequences of numbers and the occasional random phrase. Once, she quotes Shakespeare: Hell is empty and all the devils are here. Another time, she offers the words of Aleister Crowley: Science is always discovering odd scraps of magical wisdom and making a tremendous fuss about its cleverness.

The spies who could have made sense of these things are dead. One of them is missing a clavicle.

My world changes, subtly. I feel her watching me. Strange occurrences plague me. The barn refuses to stay contained in nightmares. I see it in movies, a still blipping past in the midst of a scene. It appears in books and on posters and album covers. A pasta box, one time. I glimpse its forlorn, abandoned husk in paintings and in photos on my phone. Once, I spot it out of the corner of my eye in a field I pass daily on my way to work.

I hear her voice on the radio, coming through waves of static. On the phone, in the midst of a call to a gallery, an insurance agent, a pizza delivery place. Sometimes her transmissions are nonsensical, just seemingly random repetitions of numbers. Occasionally, there is music behind her, warped carnival sounds, organ music, a polka. Once, a child’s jingle, a cheerful ditty about the black plague: Ring around the rosy.

I find a stunning replica of the barn on my sketchpad, drawn in charcoal.

I never use charcoal.

My work grows erratic. Colors run and bleed together, hues of death and rot. I wonder if I am mad, but I have learned to fear the hospitals, the men in white coats with designer shoes and laser-corrected vision and perfectly dyed hair. They, too, walk the line between magic and science, creation and destruction.

She leaves me bloody teeth and dead birds. She writes messages to my broken soul, words and formulas scratched into the pollen on my windshield or the steam on my bathroom mirror. Bloody fingerprints on a book I’m reading. A pile of teeth on my nightstand. A mound of abnormal fingerbones, laid out in a strange, runic shape in my bathtub, part of some alien alphabet, perhaps. Lovers flee from her macabre gifts. The first few refuse my calls, my broken apologies. After that, I no longer bother trying.

I wake one day to find her name etched in blood on my stomach. I write back, in ash and lipstick, in paint and colored pencil. I leave my replies on finished canvasses, commissioned ones even.

What do you want?

She never answers.

The next day, I see colors I never perceived before. The transmission, which I now hear coming from lamps, from unplugged radios, from my cell phone, changes again. I am the queen of every hive. She has begun to favor Amergin. I wonder if he, too, looked up at the night sky and saw an endless abyss. I wonder if the ancient druids broke the code of molecules and DNA and portals. I understand, by then, that this is what they wanted, the scientists, before their minds and souls burst under the pressure of infinite secrets and cosmic mysteries.

She is strongest under the new moon, when the skies are black, lightless caverns.

In the next dream, a trapdoor opens on the barn’s dirt floor. Grated iron stairs lead down into utter blackness, where rusting metal doors line a corridor that was once stark and clean and sterile. The paint is peeling and rotted.

The dream pulls me into the past, to the day Anna arrived here. I see her standing at the door, on the border between the golden field and the nightmare ahead, a hard-shell suitcase in her hand. She wears thick nurse’s shoes, and clutches a string of useless prayer beads. She kisses the beads for luck, and then descends the stairs below the trapdoor, leaving the sunlight behind.

I win awards for my painted depiction of the scene.

I draw the decay, the succession of events, to soundtracks of static and numbers. Her eyes turn white, her skin ash-grey. She wears a crown of fingerbones and a dress of teeth. Antennae sprout from her forehead, picking up signals from the cosmos. In her hand, a scepter made of someone’s femur.

She whispers oblivion into my sleep. I wake seeing data in the shadows, static in the clouds. White noise hums through my fractured thoughts. Screams burst apart in my mouth, scaring the crows from my window.

She speaks to me in the next dream: not in codes or static this time, but words.

They chose him, she says, because he had no family. He’d seen too much in the war. Too much blood. Too much death. Too much pain. They left him on the street, another destitute soul. No one would believe him, if he ever tried to say what happened here. No one would care. He wasn’t the only one. I found shallow graves in the woods. And then there were the others … the darklings. They, too, died here. Once, the wolves found one of their bodies. The remains were not human. Not entirely, anyway. After that, they burned the corpses.

She stares at me with filmy, clouded eyes.

It was his eyes that drew me to him. Green as the grass in that meadow. Deep as the sea. When I saw what they were doing to him, I tried to stop it. I knew it was wrong. But there was only one way out. I chose my fate the moment I set him free. But it was too late. He was already changing. They chased him through cold forests with guns and dogs. By morning, only ash and bone remained of him. I realized what I had done when I signed those forms. I sold my soul, my flesh, my future. I had no protection against their rage. They knew why I had released him. The test left little doubt. But they chose us all for the same reasons. We were all alone. I became the experiment.

For a moment, I see her as she was. Her eyes are like mine.

I paint his death. A full moon sits bloated in the sky above an autumn forest. This is not the autumn that blazes with color in October, but the fall of November, cold and drab and colorless. Men in uniform bark orders above the baying of dogs and the sharp report of gunfire. Bullets and flashlight beams cut through dark trees.

The thing they shot and burned in those woods was no longer human.

I wake with tears streaming down my face and truth—hideous, blasphemous truth—crawling through the blackest depths of my soul. I spend years trying desperately to find my birth mother. The records are sealed and classified. All I learn is that my birth certificate was signed in the north, in a remote county at the edge of the boreal forest.

I don’t see her for a long time, after that. I convince myself that the dreams were only dreams, that the clavicle and other incidents were hallucinations. Madness is a comfort and a lie.

And then one day, after long seasons of peace, I find a heap of teeth on my windowsill. Static rises from the pile of molars and canines, whispering to me across oblivion.

Six five three two four.

I am the tomb of all hope, the queen of all hives

Six five three two four.

I wake to find her standing beside my bed, her colorless eyes staring at me in the shadows. The voice of a long-dead druid speaks through her lips.

Who is the troop, the god who fashions edges in a fortress of gangrene?

My thoughts become salt, formless, granular, and white. I remember nothing more of that night.

I have a gallery showing the next day. As I pack my car, I realize that two of the ocean scenes I chose for the show now depict the barn. I put them in the trunk anyway and drive off, my thoughts sluggish and heavy. Suddenly I realize I don’t recognize my surroundings. This makes no sense. The gallery is only a few miles away. I haven’t left the city or the interstate. But somehow the road has changed from a separated six-lane city highway to a two-lane country road.

I slow down, uneasy.

After a few more miles, I am in the boondocks. There are no buildings here, no roads or driveways, just empty forest and the occasional bog. The area looks vaguely familiar. Dread turns to nausea in the pit of my stomach.

The barn sits around the next curve.

Terror rises up through me, clutching my windpipe with an icy grip. I slam on the brakes, bringing the car to a screeching stop. Then I turn, tires squealing, and race back the way I came. I floor it going past the barn, and watch it shrink in my rear-view mirror. But escape isn’t that easy. Instead of finding my way back to the highway, there is again the curve leading to a familiar field. Somehow I am approaching the barn again.

I try to escape two more times before I give up and stop the car. When the engine dies, silence folds over me like a blanket. Or a funeral shroud. The air is thick and heavy. The distant buzz of tree frogs and birds fades away. Silence hangs thick above the fields of hay and goldenrod. The radio tower in the woods looks primordial, a spine reaching into the abyss above.

Something small and chitinous crawls over my arm, emitting waves of static. Across the meadow, dark shapes gather at the treeline, clinging to the shadows. They are mad things, unholy. They should not exist but in nightmares.

I open my trunk, looking for a weapon; a knife, a screwdriver, anything useful. They watch me silently as I take out a flashlight. Their likenesses stare at me from my paintings. When I walk toward the barn, they howl, singing runes into the wind. The sound is beautiful and unearthly. It rises over the trees, drifting up into the cosmos. A murder of crows flies overhead, darkening the skies as they flee. They know better than to stay here.

I walk toward the barn. The wind smells of ozone and death.

I pause at the entrance, on the border between shadow and sunlight. Inside, the scent of rich dirt fills my lungs. I take a shaky step forward, and then another. Something bites my ankle, scuttling over my flip-flop. The trapdoor waits. Beneath, metal stairs lead into a pit of darkness. I look back at the door. They are there, blocking it.

She is waiting for me in the darkness below.

She has changed.

Her arms have become tentacles. Her skin—what I can see of it—is paper-thin and mottled with green spots. Hook-like talons tip her elongated fingers, and a single, thick horn envelops the back of her skull, like an Elizabethan collar.

She brings me deeper and deeper into the shadows beneath the barn, leading me down a forgotten hallway to a chamber piled high with bones. Some are still wet, glistening with blood and sinew. Ancient radio equipment sits in the corner, covered with layers of dust. I reach out and turn the radio on. It shouldn’t work without a power source. But it does. Her voice crackles through the speakers, wrapped in static. Her words are bloody and gelatinous. I need calcium now, she says, and collagen and marrow.

I look around. An antiquated reel-to-reel sits in one room. Others contain more scientific things, beakers and vials and broken glass jars. Then there are the cells. Their walls are splattered with foul dark stains. Death and madness hang in the air. The place reeks of coldness and precision.

They wanted to experiment, she says, in a burst of pink noise, with the very fabric of reality. They wanted to send a soul—a spy—through a radio transmission. Instead, they tore a rip in our world, and opened a door to places beyond time, where the last trace of light falls into the endless abyss. They were behind what happened with the USS Eldridge, you know. They silenced that. But I, I was special. I was chosen. I saw the face of eternity when I looked into the portal.

Things slither away from the light as I approach her. My feet crunch on beetles and worms, popping the decaying organs of man and beast. Filth squishes between my toes.

You were born here, she tells me.

In that moment, my soul splits open and escapes its shell, like a seed bursting apart for the plant within to grow.

Her voice fills the shadows.

They tried to carve the knowledge out of us with sharp steel things. They drew nightmares on our eyes, and trapped our screams in shiny jars. They dissected our fear, our pain, our hunger, and created alchemical formulas for our terrors. I don’t know everything that they were trying to do, those men in white coats, only that they dealt with portals and vortexes. Things they wanted no one to see.

A third eye erupts from her face, pus-filled and glistening with foul liquid. She raises her tentacles, and I see the egg sacs glistening beneath her arms. Her nose has become a beak, hooked and sharp. Her carapace is black and shiny, like onyx.

I look up into the sky—which I can see through the ground and roof above me—and see the face of eternity. It is monstrous. It is magnificent.

Her voice caresses my mind, a spider’s touch.

This is the beginning of your death. And of your rule.

The sound of static roars into my brain, scrambling my thoughts. Visions burst in my mind, blooms of fire and death. I should run. I should fight. Instead, I stand there, weak and broken, melting. She opens her scaly arms, and I fall into them, sobbing.

The word Mother tastes like blood on my tongue.

Something cold pierces my flesh.

I fall to my knees, suddenly hot and dizzy. I vomit a dark green bile that smokes and steams. White noise rushes through my veins, pounding in my ears.

She retreats to the shadows of a tunnel she has burrowed into the ground.

By the next morning, my arms and legs are covered with angry red blisters. They turn yellow in the center, while the edges darken to black and green. My tongue splits. A protrusion erupts from my forehead. The carbuncles keep growing, swelling with fluid and nightmares. My hair falls out. Cataracts cloud my eyes. Lesions block my ear canals. A thick horn grows around the back of my skull. Like hers, it cradles my head like an Elizabethan collar or Triceratops horn. I see with my new eye, which rests on a stalk above my head. I hear with the antennae that burst out of my skull.

The skin falls from my face. She picks it up and eats it, licking her claws.

She is pleased. She gives me bones to eat. I bite into dry, dusty femurs that splinter into shards in my mouth, suck marrow out of finger bones. It tastes oily and decadent. I swallow knowledge in fatty, gelatinous lumps. I can identify individual molecules now. I see both on a cellular level and on a galactic. They are the same, in varying proportions.

I find the records she saved for me in a rusted file cabinet. From them, I glean her story. Most of the papers are yellow with age. They crumble to dust at my touch. Some she encased in plastic, and only these survived the blood days and the seasons after them. I burn them after I read them. The words are seared into my brain. They remain there today, tucked in somewhere in that vortex of grey matter, membrane, and mystery.

Together we reopen the portal.

I give birth beneath the new moon. Screams split my lungs. My eyes rupture and run down my face in streams of warm, salty gel. My boils burst, and beautiful monsters crawl out of the pustules. Static crackles through the air as the transmission starts. She calls to celestial abominations, celebrating the birth of the darklings, broadcasting coded destruction into the night sky.

Grow, I whisper to my children. Grow and breed. The world will be yours one day.

They scuttle into the darkness, watching me with blood black eyes.

She leaves me skeletons to feed them with. Every day, a fresh pile appears at the door of the cell I have chosen. We save the bones of the men in white coats for special occasions. I discover some of the old recordings: random sequences of numbers read by what sounds like a young woman, the audio distorted by strange, staticky buzzes. I recognize her voice immediately.

Seasons of blood and madness.

I hide in the forest, watching occasional cars pass, the smell of exhaust sharp and pungent in my snout. My children grow. I bring them to the sea, to the desert, tenderly carrying them in wet skulls, in pockets of flesh, in my blisters, in my wounds. The others come and help, my brethren, the silent monstrosities waiting in the wood. They are quiet and meticulous, their pupil-less eyes pools of oblivion. I sense their thoughts, which they cast at me in clouds of white noise. They dream only of death, of ripe flesh tearing and bursting beneath their fangs. I speak to them in waves of static, alchemical patterns, the song of molecules and elements. My words travel through their cells. My thoughts explode in their flesh. My dreams burn in their blood and fester in their marrow. They feast on bones, and watch the night skies with eyes grown on stalks from their misshapen heads. They bring me gifts of bone and offal as blood fills their footsteps and their shadows. They are beautiful. They are horrendous. They are oblivion.

One day, they will blot out the sun and the blue sky will go dark forever.

One day, they will crack the moon and the dead clouds will shed the last of their color.

One day, we will shatter the banshee winds into pieces and chew the bones of the last human being.

I hover over the ancient radio, speaking to my scattered kin. Humanity has failed, I tell them. It is time for our kind. Night after night, I send the messages out, whispering visions of death and decay. She always wanted me to take over this sacred duty. I realize that when I eat her bones. The secrets are in her marrow, which is sweet and rich.

By spring, the machines have fallen silent, and the wind no longer carries the sound of human voices. My final transmission crosses an empty night sky, riding waves of static through the endless abyss.

I am the tomb of all hope, the queen of all hives.

The post PseudoPod 698: Of Marrow and Abomination appeared first on PseudoPod.

Apr 12 2020

43mins

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Rank #6: PseudoPod 526: The Great American Nightmare

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PseudoPod 526: The Great American Nightmare is a PseudoPod original.

“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” – Plato

“They who can give up essential liberty for temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin

The Great American Nightmare

by Moaner T. Lawrence

The sky over 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was clear and blue at 12:00PM EST on Friday, January 20th, 2017. At 12:01, a fleet of Secret Service byakhee swarmed over the abstract visage of what was once The White House. Faster and faster, they beat their jet black wings, until the unholy force tore a hole in the sky. It became a swirling vortex, and the composer Erich Zann, considered missing for over 120 years, began conducting a chorus of six-foot albino penguins, alongside the United States Marine Band to a discordant rendition of Hail, Columbia. Opposite the band, a crowd of three million attendants held fast to a double-reinforced security railing, or anything else they could grab onto, so as to bear witness to the spectacle before them without being sucked into the portal forming above.

The post PseudoPod 526: The Great American Nightmare appeared first on PseudoPod.

Jan 20 2017

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Rank #7: PseudoPod 686: The Phantom Rider

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“The Phantom Rider” originally appeared in Weird Tales, November 1924

The Phantom Rider

by Otis Adelbert Kline

Big Bill Hawkins laid the trap with admirable precision. Every little detail had been worked out with the utmost nicety.

The care-free manner of his partner, Seth Ormsby, indicated that he suspected nothing, though he did seem somewhat puzzled by Big Bill’s unwonted loquacity and unprecedented joviality. He had shown a strange lack of enthusiasm when, after a summer of unrequited toil, the prospectors had stumbled on the vein that promised to make them both independently wealthy: During the days spent in preliminary work with a view to replenishing their depleted larder, he had been unusually taciturn, even sullen at times.

As they rode abreast along the trail, followed by the two pack-mules, the foremost of which bore in its saddlebags enough gold dust to purchase the entire general store at Red Dog, Big Bill outdid himself in his efforts to be agreeable. At the same time he was thinking, planning.

Big Bill, a dyed-in-the-wool prospector, had first met Ormsby in the Deer Foot Saloon at Red Dog. He had lived up most of his savings and needed a grub-stake. Ormsby, a wandering cowpuncher out of a job, had the necessary money. Under the mellowing influence of liquor they had struck up a partnership.

The country through which they wandered was an open book to Hawkins, and Ormsby, the newcomer, always relied on his burly partner when a choice of directions was to be made. It was Hawkins who, in this instance, had suggested they take this new trail to Red Dog, where papers were to be filed and supplies purchased.

Big Bill felt that he had ample reason to hate Ormsby. For nineteen years he had been prospecting in this region, sometimes with a partner, but more often alone. He had managed to find enough pay-dirt to keep body and soul together and had made occasional moderate strikes rich enough to support him in idleness for several months at a time. The thing that stuck in his craw was the fact that when the big strike came—the strike for which he had been hoping, toiling and struggling for nineteen years—he must share it with this greenhorn; this newcomer who couldn’t tell quartz from shale. He had gambled the best years of his life for this stake and felt that fortune had cold-decked him when she finally dealt him one royal flush and Ormsby the other. It meant that they must either split the pot or leave it up for a showdown, and Big Bill had resolved on a showdown dealt from his own stacked deck.

“Seems like we’re goin’ sorta outa the way to git to Red Dog,” remarked Ormsby, when they suddenly turned at a fork in the trail.

“Not so much.” replied Big Bill with studied indifference. “They’sa water hole down this way and the animals ain’t goin’ to be none the worse off for wettin’ their whistles. We got to think of them as well as ourselves. It’s a long, hot ride and the other trail is bone-dry.”

“Right you are, Bill. I plumb forgot about the poor brutes. A man’ll do that sometimes when he’s got a full canteen himself.”

“You’re a hell of a cowpuncher,” roared Hawkins. “I don’t never forget ’em. They can’t run without water no more’n a ottymobil can run without gasoline.”

“It’s this big strike of ourn that’s got me kinda loco,” replied Ormsby. “I don’t know whether I’m horseback or ridin’ a airyoplane half the time.”

Big Bill did not reply. His eyes were on the trail ahead. The time for action was almost at hand. The sharp curve, now only fifty feet away, was the appointed place.

Nearer and nearer they drew to that curve. Big Bill’s gaze did not falter. True, the hands that held the reins trembled slightly, but there was nothing in his expression that might serve to betray his purpose. He was wearing his poker face. The time for the showdown had arrived. He reined back slightly, drew his keen hunting knife, and stealthily severed the lead ropes.

With a vicious kick he suddenly drove his spur into the left flank of his unsuspecting steed. As the horse reared, he pulled on the right rein, jerking the animal against Ormsby’s mount. The ledge was a narrow one—the drop only a matter of a few feet. Horse and rider lurched, slipped, and fell into something that received them with a dull splash. A moment later man and beast were struggling desperately in a yielding, slimy mess that threatened to engulf them in a few seconds.

Big Bill’s horse galloped swiftly up the trail for more than a hundred yards. By sawing the bit he brought the animal to a prancing walk, then to a dead stop. He turned and rode leisurely back. The frightened squeals of the mired horse all but drowned the man’s cries for help.

“My God, Bill, it’s quicksand!” shouted Ormsby.

Hawkins dismounted leisurely and walked to the brink. Taking a plug of tobacco from his pocket, he bit off a hunk, chewed for a moment, then spat into the bubbling, slimy mess beneath him.

“Damned if it ain’t,” he said. “Hang on for a minute and I’ll throw you a rope.”

With studied deliberation he turned and gave his attention to the coiled lariat that dangled from his saddle. He seemed to be having trouble with the knots.

“Hurry, Bill, for God’s sake!” cried Ormsby. “It’s up to my waist already !”

Big Bill continued to pull at the tangled lariat. Somehow, with each pull, the knot grew tighter. At length he turned. Ormsby had succeeded in loosing his own rope and was trying to throw it to him. The slimy ooze was up to his armpits. Of his horse nothing could, be seen but the foam-flecked nostrils. These disappeared as he cast the rope. It fell at the feet of Hawkins.

“Grab holt of my rope, Bill. I think I can crawl out on it.”

Big Bill stooped slowly and picked up the slime-smeared rope. Then, with a vicious laugh that was almost a snarl, he hurled it in the face of his victim.

The deadly quagmire had reached Ormsby’s chin. A look of blank surprise came to his face. It was followed by one of hatred and revulsion as the sinister purpose of his partner was revealed to him. He tilted his head backward for a last sobbing inhalation.

“You dirty coyote.” he gasped. “You murderin’ yaller dog. I’ll get you for this if I have to break out of hell to do it! I’ll—”

His speech was cut short by the mounting quicksand. A slimy hand waved for a moment above the surface, clutching claw-like at the empty air. Then it, too, disappeared.

Big Bill surveyed the bubble-strewn surface of the quagmire, apparently unmoved. The only remaining trace of his revolting crime was Ormsby’s half-submerged Stetson, which had fallen a few feet from where its owner went down. He sank it from sight with a carefully aimed rock fragment. That he turned his attention to the waiting animals.

The two pack-mules watched him unconcernedly, their long ears drooping limply, as he picked up the ends of the lead-ropes and knotted them together. He vaulted into the saddle and rode to the water hole, only a few rods distant. When the beasts had drunk their fill, he set out with all haste for Red Dog.

The blood-red sun was poised just above the western horizon when Big Bill rode into the village. After seeing that his animals were properly bedded and fed he removed the heavy sacks of “dust” from his saddle-bags and hied to Bonnell’s General Store.

“Hello, Bill,” greeted Dave Bonnell, peering over his silver-rimmed spectacles as the burly prospector strode through the door. “Where’s yer pardner?”

Big Bill laughed a bit nervously.

“Skipped out a coupla weeks ago for parts unknown,” he replied. “Took most of the grub with him, too, the damned skunk! But the joke’s on him. Day after be left I struck pay dirt and staked out a nice little claim for myself. I want you to weigh in this dust for me and fix up my papers.”

The ancient counter trembled with the impact of the two heavy bags which he suddenly placed before the astonished shopkeeper. Dave Bonnell weighed the gold dust with wide-eyed wonder.

“You shore hit pay dirt this time, didn’t you, Bill,” he remarked “Want any cash on this or just a receipt?”

“Gimme about a hundred cash and a receipt for the balance,” replied the prospector, “I ’llow to ride over and file claim in the mornin’. Think you can fix my papers up this evenin’ so I can git an early start tomorrow?”

“Have ’em ready for you by the time you get through with your supper,” said Bonnell. Aside from being a storekeeper, he was a notary public and justice of the peace.

Bill ambled over to the Deer Foot Saloon for a couple of shots of whiskey as an appetizer. Then he went into the adjoining cafe, where he tucked a huge beefsteak, a half dozen eggs, French fried potatoes, coffee, and a piece of pie under his belt. After lighting a long black cigar he returned to the store. Bonnell had the papers ready for his signature. He removed his hat, raised his right hand in solemn oath and affixed his name.

“Well, so long, Dave,” he muttered, when Bonnell handed him the documents. “See you tomorrow afternoon.”

“You’ll be wantin’ some grub and things, I suppose.”

“Yeah. Plenty of things. So long.”

“So long, Bill.”

Late the following afternoon Big Bill rode back from the county seat, the sole owner of the richest claim that had been filed in that office for many years.

He had often wondered how it would feel to be wealthy. Time and again he had planned the things he would do should he ever strike it rich. Now that the big moment had arrived, however, his thoughts were chaos. For one thing, he had promised himself plenty of wine, women and song. As Red Dog afforded only the first mentioned article and it would be necessary for him to inhabit that village for some time to come, be decided that the time for indulgence was at hand. Accordingly he drew up before the Deer Foot Saloon, carelessly tossed his reins over a hitching post, and strode through the door, oozing affluence.

The wine was, of course, only figurative. Big Bill looked on wine as a woman’s drink. He liked his liquor and liked it straight. He swaggered up to the bar and planked a twenty-dollar bill on the counter before the astonished eyes of Joe McGinnis, the porcine bartender.

“Whadda ya got that’s good and strong, Joel?” he asked.

“Well, we got some Old Crow, some Arkoveet that’ll proof about a hundred and twenty, and some Three Star Hennesy and—”

“Gimme Three Star, and see what the rest of the boys will have.”

The motley crew of cowpunchers, prospectors, sheep herders, card sharps and others of doubtful occupations, or no occupations at all, voiced their various wants in no uncertain terms. When they were served they drained their glasses, chorusing “’S lookin’ atcha,” “Here’s how,” and “Happy days.”

Convivial companionship was not lacking after that, especially since Big Bill, in view of his recent prosperity, insisted on buying a lion’s share of the refreshments.

By ten-thirty, however, the crowd began to thin out. Many of the roisterers lurched out to their waiting steeds, some singly, others in small groups. A few who had imbibed too freely lay with heads resting on tables or lolled back in their chairs, oblivious to the drunken songs and ribald jests that went up from those who were able to hold to their moorings before the bar.

Big Bill tossed his last twenty-dollar note under the nose of the barkeeper.

“Givesh nother drink, Joe,” he said gravely. “What t’ell y’standin there like damn Dumb-Isaac for? Ja ’ear me? Shed jam Bum-Isaac. Shwatcha are, too.”

“You had enough, Bill,” said Joe. “Here; put your money in your pocket and go on to bed.”

“Had nuff did I?”

Big Bill glared hostilely at the bartender.

“Gesh I know when I got ’nough. Gimme drink.”

“You’ll get no more to drink tonight. Not here, anyway.”

“Shay. Who t’ll shink you’re talkin’ to. Do I get a drink ‘r don’t I?”

Big Bill was getting ugly. His hand stole toward the forty-five that hung at his hip. The revelers on either side of him stepped back in sudden alarm.

“You heard what I said. Take your money and get out.”

The forty-five roared and broken glasses tinkled in a shower behind the bar. It roared again and a hole appeared in the mirror, surrounded by spoke-like cracks that radiated in all directions.

The sheriff, who had been enjoying a sociable game of draw poker in the back room, poked his head and gun from between the double doors at one and the same time.

“What the hell’s goin’ on here?” he roared.

Big Bill had a wholesome fear of the law. The sight of the gun and star almost sobered him. Panic-stricken, he dropped his forty-five, rushed out through the door and flung himself upon his horse.

The sheriff ran after him, but was stayed by Joe Vienza.

“Let him go, Jack.” he said. “They’s nobody hurt and we can make him pay for the glasses and mirror tomorrow. He’s rich enough to buy this whole town now.”

Big Bill, galloping hastily along the village street, felt sure that he was being pursued. He spurred his horse until the blood spurted from its gashed sides, and tried to think. What was it he had done! For the life of him he could not remember. Everything was hazy up to the time the sheriff had appeared. Suddenly his hand touched the empty holster. He had used his gun. Perhaps he had killed a man.

Killed a man! The thought persisted. Yes. He had killed a man only the day before. And that man had sworn—what was it be had sworn? The exact words of the dying Ormsby came back to him with amazing vividness.

“I’ll get you for this if I have to break out of hell to do it.”

Could a man break out of hell, or wherever his spirit might chance to go? Could the dead return to wreak vengeance on those who had wronged them! He wondered, then urged his horse forward with renewed frenzy as the sharp clatter of hoof-beats sounded close behind him.

It seemed, however, that with the first staccato click of those pursuing hoofs the horse needed no urging. The frightened beast leaped forward with ears laid back and nostrils distended as if running for its very life. But despite the speed he was making, the increasing distinctness of the sounds behind him told Big Bill that his pursuer was gaining on him—gaining with amazing rapidity.

He expected to hear a command to halt or feel a bullet between his shoulder-blades at any moment He feared to go on, feared to stop—even feared to turn and look at his pursuer. The suspense was nerve-wracking.

Well. It would soon be a matter of his life or that of the sheriff. Undoubtedly be had shot a man and, if taken for it, would surely swing. His forty-five was gone, but he still had his derringer. With an oath he snatched it from his pocket and swung in the saddle. His pursuer was less than fifty feet behind, and Big Bill seldom missed at fifty feet He raised the tiny weapon and fired. Then, seeing that the bullet had not taken effect, he cursed and fired again. His pursuer came on, sitting bolt upright in the saddle, apparently unmoved.

There was something strange about the appearance of the oncoming man and beast—something terrifying, appalling. He had not noticed it at first, but the realization suddenly burned itself into his consciousness. The horse was strangely familiar and the man—only one man he had ever known wore his Stetson creased thus and at that peculiar, jaunty angle. And that man was dead—murdered. Again the words of the slain Ormsby came back to him:

“I’ll get you for this if I have to break out of hell to do it.”

He strained his eyes in an attempt to pierce the semi-darkness. Suddenly the moon peered from behind a rapidly-moving cloud—and he knew…

The derringer dropped from his nerveless fingers. A queer choking feeling paralyzed his throat. He passed his hand before his eyes and looked again. The vision persisted.

Nearer and nearer came that silent, relentless pursuer. With a shudder of horror Big Bill saw that he or it was uncoiling a lariat.

The loop widened, whirled about that ghostly head and shot through the air. Big Bill ducked, then uttered a shriek of mortal terror that ended in a gurgling, agonized wail as the rope settled and tightened about his throat. For a moment he felt himself dangling in empty air—then all went black…

Early the following morning two cowpunchers from the Bar L Ranch rode into Red Dog. One carried an extra saddle and bridle, the other the rapidly stiffening body of Big Bill Hawkins.

They were quickly surrounded by a crowd of curious onlookers, foremost among whom was the sheriff.

“Where’d you find him? What happened!” asked the sheriff, as two men assisted in lowering the corpse to the ground.

The cowboy whose horse had borne the body dismounted.

“Dangdest queerest thing I ever seen,” he said. “We found Big Bill and his horse lying at the bottom of a ravine. Bill was dead and the horse had broken both forelegs, so we shot him.”

“But what killed Bill?”

“As near as I can make out, he was roped and strangled. There’s a rope burn around his neck and he don’t seem to have no broken bones or other injuries.”

“Who follered Big Bill out of Red Dog last night!” demanded the sheriff, facing the crowd.

“No one follered him,” volunteered a prospector. “I seen him come out and ride away alone.”

“Whoever got him,” continued the cowboy, “must’ve left in an airship.”

“An airship! What do you mean!”

“Well, me and my pardner went up to the top of the ravine to try and find out what happened. We saw the tracks of Bill’s horse where he had come runnin’ up and plunged over the edge. Beside them was the trail of another horse that ended in a four-track slidin’ square like your bronc’ makes when you rope a steer.”

“And where did they go from there!”

“That’s just the point. We hunted high and low and circled the place for a hundred yards in every direction. There wasn’t a single track of horse or man leading away from the place where Bill Hawkins died!”

The post PseudoPod 686: The Phantom Rider appeared first on PseudoPod.

Jan 25 2020

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Rank #8: PseudoPod 479: ARTEMIS RISING Women In Horror Showcase: Like Dolls

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PseudoPod 479: ARTEMIS RISING Women In Horror Showcase: Like Dolls is a PseudoPod original.

Like Dolls started as a meditation on the other side of the ‘wailing on your grave’ subgenre of folk music, such as I Am Stretched on Your Grave and The Unquiet Grave. Not only is Like Dolls a Pseudopod original, but also the author’s first professional publication sale. PseudoPod couldn’t be prouder to introduce you to this author.

Like Dolls

by J. Lily Corbie

I am awake. Through the trappings of a funeral and the clods of earth raining upon me, I am aware. When my father kneels at my headstone and calls me his willful girl, I hear him. When Meredith weeps and lays poppies on my grave, I know. When they are gone, I am at rest.

The dark is absolute. I know my eyes are open–curious fingers encounter the wet resistance of eye, feel the brush of eyelashes with each blink. I suffer neither thirst nor hunger, and though my chest still fills and empties, I want for nothing. I am somnolent, content with my eternity.

Only Bastian’s voice interrupts my peace.

At the service, he threw himself across my coffin and wailed. He wasn’t mourning–he was claiming my funeral with his grief. Now he lays himself along my grave. He weeps and he laments, and I feel his weight through earth and wood. I am reminded, time and again, that not even my death belongs to me.

The post PseudoPod 479: ARTEMIS RISING Women In Horror Showcase: Like Dolls appeared first on PseudoPod.

Feb 26 2016

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Rank #9: PseudoPod 698: Of Marrow and Abomination – Narration Only

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PseudoPod 698: Of Marrow and Abomination – Narration Only is a PseudoPod original.

Spoiler Inside SelectShow Montauk: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montauk_Project
USS Eldridge: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Eldridge#Philadelphia_Experiment
Gideon Falls: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gideon_Falls
Tanis: http://tanispodcast.com/

Of Marrow and Abomination

by Morgan Sylvia

I am very young when I first dream of the ruined barn.

The barn is nothing more than a burnt-out husk in the northern woods. It stands alone in an overgrown meadow, a blackened shell of rotted shingles and charred, cracked timbers, its weathered grey boards standing in stark contrast to the golden hayfields around it. The northeast is peppered with such ruins. Built by hand, not machine, the old barns are silent, forgotten monuments of a lost age, one where horses, not cars, carried men through the thick, tangled woods, and where woodstoves rather than furnaces kept away the biting winter cold.

It was initially repurposed as a numbers station, a clandestine radio station that broadcasts coded messages to spies via short-wave radio transmissions. Later, it became something else. A black site, of sorts. By then, the Cold War had ended, and we had clawed our way greedily into the information age.

I wonder now if they understood what they were doing, those Cold War doctors with their shiny shoes and thick glasses and slicked-back hair. They chose this spot, no doubt, because it was both isolated and unremarkable. They wanted the space and freedom to explore their madnesses, their alchemy, far away from prying eyes, in a place where only beasts and forgotten ghosts could see. I wonder if it ever occurred to them that the abominations created here would never be contained. They saw themselves, no doubt, as pioneers, inventors. In truth, they were sorcerers as much as scientists, heirs to Crowley and Agathodaemon as much as to Newton and Einstein and Hawking.

They are dead now. The darklings gnaw on their skeletons.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions and the corpses of men like them.

And of her? The dead thing that waits in the shadows below the barn’s charred roof, dreaming of static and decay?

This is the tale of her awakening, as much as it is of my own.

She was human once, first an orphan—like me—and then a young nurse jumping at a job that paid in a week more than she usually made in a year. She likely did not think overmuch about the papers of confidentiality, the releases she signed, though those of us born to the world of cell phones and internet scams would have seen red flags in the convoluted language and restrictions. She—like her cohorts—was bound to secrecy. Her name was Anna, but they relegated her identity to a number.

She isn’t in the early dreams. Actually, there are no people in the initial dreams. No animals. No sound. Nothing happens, at first. The visions are only fleeting glimpses of a single moment in time. Barn and landscape remain static and unchanging, consistent as a painting, untouched by wind or weather. Yet even as a child, I sense something sinister about the barn’s blackened shadows and rotted beams.

The dreams follow me through a succession of foster homes and boarding schools. Over time, the scene slowly comes to life. The grass moves beneath charnel winds. Seasons change. Strange colors shimmer in the sky. Then the barn begins dragging me toward it. My feet hover over the earth, and I am drawn to the ruin like a fish caught in a line, pulled ever closer, dream by dream. As I approach the barn door, the world comes alive. In summer, I move through swarming clouds of shiny green flies. In winter, snow and freezing rain part before me.

I sense that the shadows contain something hideous, something monstrous. Dread flows through my body like molten lead, tickling my stomach, pouring salt into my limbs. But I am powerless, an insect caught in a web.

In one dream, a single fly approaches me on iridescent wings. The buzz it produces tears another barrier loose. Where there was once only silence, now there is sound. White-noise static rises up around me, deafening, filling the air. A disembodied voice, rattling like dry bones, slips through my thoughts, repeating a series of numbers again and again.

Four six seven nine

Four six seven nine

Four six seven nine

A pale figure appears in the crooked doorway. She wears a necklace of teeth and a tattered nurse’s dress that was once white, but is now a dusty, colorless grey. Dull, matted hair falls over her shoulders in thick ropy strands. Her face is only a skull.

I wake gasping for breath, my heart pounding.

Every night, the dream becomes more real. I withdraw from my friends, isolate myself, submerge myself in art. I live not in flesh and blood, but in paper and pencil, ink and paint.

The dreams continue.

I don’t yet understand what she is, a ghost trapped in static, a soul caught between two planes. But I soon learn that she is not bound to the rules of the natural world. Mirrors reflect her face, rather than mine. I see her walking behind me, a reflection cast in a classroom mirror or a gym pool. Her eyes are sometimes milky and clouded, sometimes black and empty, sometimes blood red and wet. I grow accustomed to the way the air chills when she appears. I learn her scent, which is damp soil and cinder.

Eventually, the dream brings me into the barn.

It looks, at first, as one would expect. Sunlight filters through spaces between weathered boards. Piles of debris obscure the dirt floor. In corners, and in the bright roofless area, patches of weeds struggle toward the sun. Oddly, the building’s interior has been reinforced with stronger wood. This isn’t to make it functional. The barn will never again contain horses or cattle, gentle creatures with eyes like pools of chocolate, their soft whiskered noses sniffing for treats. It is but a prop, a cover for whatever waits beneath the trap door in its center. The support is only to keep it standing.

The transmission changes.

She quotes ancient Druid bards, leaving the words of Amergin etched into the frost on my window as winter presses against the walls. I am God who fashions Fire for a Head. Who but I announces the Ages of the Moon? Something in my atoms shrivels and changes. My soul withers and blackens at the sound of her voice.

In the dream, the sky turns red.

One night I wake screaming, gasping for air, my entire body numb, only to find that the dream has bled into my reality. A single, charred piece of wood sits on my nightstand. Beside it rests a clavicle. I stare at these objects for a long time, questions bubbling up through my brain. The clavicle is misshapen. The bone bulges, revealing a seam where the bones grew fast and unnatural.

I open the window. A warm summer wind moves the curtains. Everything smells of blood and rust. I toss the things into the alley below. Feral dogs immediately investigate.

When I flip on the TV, her laughter escapes a newscaster’s mouth.

Some boundary has been breached. I am never able to identify what line I crossed, what date or milestone was reached. But after that, I often hear static, like the sound of snow on a television set. Behind it, her disembodied voice reads sequences of numbers and the occasional random phrase. Once, she quotes Shakespeare: Hell is empty and all the devils are here. Another time, she offers the words of Aleister Crowley: Science is always discovering odd scraps of magical wisdom and making a tremendous fuss about its cleverness.

The spies who could have made sense of these things are dead. One of them is missing a clavicle.

My world changes, subtly. I feel her watching me. Strange occurrences plague me. The barn refuses to stay contained in nightmares. I see it in movies, a still blipping past in the midst of a scene. It appears in books and on posters and album covers. A pasta box, one time. I glimpse its forlorn, abandoned husk in paintings and in photos on my phone. Once, I spot it out of the corner of my eye in a field I pass daily on my way to work.

I hear her voice on the radio, coming through waves of static. On the phone, in the midst of a call to a gallery, an insurance agent, a pizza delivery place. Sometimes her transmissions are nonsensical, just seemingly random repetitions of numbers. Occasionally, there is music behind her, warped carnival sounds, organ music, a polka. Once, a child’s jingle, a cheerful ditty about the black plague: Ring around the rosy.

I find a stunning replica of the barn on my sketchpad, drawn in charcoal.

I never use charcoal.

My work grows erratic. Colors run and bleed together, hues of death and rot. I wonder if I am mad, but I have learned to fear the hospitals, the men in white coats with designer shoes and laser-corrected vision and perfectly dyed hair. They, too, walk the line between magic and science, creation and destruction.

She leaves me bloody teeth and dead birds. She writes messages to my broken soul, words and formulas scratched into the pollen on my windshield or the steam on my bathroom mirror. Bloody fingerprints on a book I’m reading. A pile of teeth on my nightstand. A mound of abnormal fingerbones, laid out in a strange, runic shape in my bathtub, part of some alien alphabet, perhaps. Lovers flee from her macabre gifts. The first few refuse my calls, my broken apologies. After that, I no longer bother trying.

I wake one day to find her name etched in blood on my stomach. I write back, in ash and lipstick, in paint and colored pencil. I leave my replies on finished canvasses, commissioned ones even.

What do you want?

She never answers.

The next day, I see colors I never perceived before. The transmission, which I now hear coming from lamps, from unplugged radios, from my cell phone, changes again. I am the queen of every hive. She has begun to favor Amergin. I wonder if he, too, looked up at the night sky and saw an endless abyss. I wonder if the ancient druids broke the code of molecules and DNA and portals. I understand, by then, that this is what they wanted, the scientists, before their minds and souls burst under the pressure of infinite secrets and cosmic mysteries.

She is strongest under the new moon, when the skies are black, lightless caverns.

In the next dream, a trapdoor opens on the barn’s dirt floor. Grated iron stairs lead down into utter blackness, where rusting metal doors line a corridor that was once stark and clean and sterile. The paint is peeling and rotted.

The dream pulls me into the past, to the day Anna arrived here. I see her standing at the door, on the border between the golden field and the nightmare ahead, a hard-shell suitcase in her hand. She wears thick nurse’s shoes, and clutches a string of useless prayer beads. She kisses the beads for luck, and then descends the stairs below the trapdoor, leaving the sunlight behind.

I win awards for my painted depiction of the scene.

I draw the decay, the succession of events, to soundtracks of static and numbers. Her eyes turn white, her skin ash-grey. She wears a crown of fingerbones and a dress of teeth. Antennae sprout from her forehead, picking up signals from the cosmos. In her hand, a scepter made of someone’s femur.

She whispers oblivion into my sleep. I wake seeing data in the shadows, static in the clouds. White noise hums through my fractured thoughts. Screams burst apart in my mouth, scaring the crows from my window.

She speaks to me in the next dream: not in codes or static this time, but words.

They chose him, she says, because he had no family. He’d seen too much in the war. Too much blood. Too much death. Too much pain. They left him on the street, another destitute soul. No one would believe him, if he ever tried to say what happened here. No one would care. He wasn’t the only one. I found shallow graves in the woods. And then there were the others … the darklings. They, too, died here. Once, the wolves found one of their bodies. The remains were not human. Not entirely, anyway. After that, they burned the corpses.

She stares at me with filmy, clouded eyes.

It was his eyes that drew me to him. Green as the grass in that meadow. Deep as the sea. When I saw what they were doing to him, I tried to stop it. I knew it was wrong. But there was only one way out. I chose my fate the moment I set him free. But it was too late. He was already changing. They chased him through cold forests with guns and dogs. By morning, only ash and bone remained of him. I realized what I had done when I signed those forms. I sold my soul, my flesh, my future. I had no protection against their rage. They knew why I had released him. The test left little doubt. But they chose us all for the same reasons. We were all alone. I became the experiment.

For a moment, I see her as she was. Her eyes are like mine.

I paint his death. A full moon sits bloated in the sky above an autumn forest. This is not the autumn that blazes with color in October, but the fall of November, cold and drab and colorless. Men in uniform bark orders above the baying of dogs and the sharp report of gunfire. Bullets and flashlight beams cut through dark trees.

The thing they shot and burned in those woods was no longer human.

I wake with tears streaming down my face and truth—hideous, blasphemous truth—crawling through the blackest depths of my soul. I spend years trying desperately to find my birth mother. The records are sealed and classified. All I learn is that my birth certificate was signed in the north, in a remote county at the edge of the boreal forest.

I don’t see her for a long time, after that. I convince myself that the dreams were only dreams, that the clavicle and other incidents were hallucinations. Madness is a comfort and a lie.

And then one day, after long seasons of peace, I find a heap of teeth on my windowsill. Static rises from the pile of molars and canines, whispering to me across oblivion.

Six five three two four.

I am the tomb of all hope, the queen of all hives

Six five three two four.

I wake to find her standing beside my bed, her colorless eyes staring at me in the shadows. The voice of a long-dead druid speaks through her lips.

Who is the troop, the god who fashions edges in a fortress of gangrene?

My thoughts become salt, formless, granular, and white. I remember nothing more of that night.

I have a gallery showing the next day. As I pack my car, I realize that two of the ocean scenes I chose for the show now depict the barn. I put them in the trunk anyway and drive off, my thoughts sluggish and heavy. Suddenly I realize I don’t recognize my surroundings. This makes no sense. The gallery is only a few miles away. I haven’t left the city or the interstate. But somehow the road has changed from a separated six-lane city highway to a two-lane country road.

I slow down, uneasy.

After a few more miles, I am in the boondocks. There are no buildings here, no roads or driveways, just empty forest and the occasional bog. The area looks vaguely familiar. Dread turns to nausea in the pit of my stomach.

The barn sits around the next curve.

Terror rises up through me, clutching my windpipe with an icy grip. I slam on the brakes, bringing the car to a screeching stop. Then I turn, tires squealing, and race back the way I came. I floor it going past the barn, and watch it shrink in my rear-view mirror. But escape isn’t that easy. Instead of finding my way back to the highway, there is again the curve leading to a familiar field. Somehow I am approaching the barn again.

I try to escape two more times before I give up and stop the car. When the engine dies, silence folds over me like a blanket. Or a funeral shroud. The air is thick and heavy. The distant buzz of tree frogs and birds fades away. Silence hangs thick above the fields of hay and goldenrod. The radio tower in the woods looks primordial, a spine reaching into the abyss above.

Something small and chitinous crawls over my arm, emitting waves of static. Across the meadow, dark shapes gather at the treeline, clinging to the shadows. They are mad things, unholy. They should not exist but in nightmares.

I open my trunk, looking for a weapon; a knife, a screwdriver, anything useful. They watch me silently as I take out a flashlight. Their likenesses stare at me from my paintings. When I walk toward the barn, they howl, singing runes into the wind. The sound is beautiful and unearthly. It rises over the trees, drifting up into the cosmos. A murder of crows flies overhead, darkening the skies as they flee. They know better than to stay here.

I walk toward the barn. The wind smells of ozone and death.

I pause at the entrance, on the border between shadow and sunlight. Inside, the scent of rich dirt fills my lungs. I take a shaky step forward, and then another. Something bites my ankle, scuttling over my flip-flop. The trapdoor waits. Beneath, metal stairs lead into a pit of darkness. I look back at the door. They are there, blocking it.

She is waiting for me in the darkness below.

She has changed.

Her arms have become tentacles. Her skin—what I can see of it—is paper-thin and mottled with green spots. Hook-like talons tip her elongated fingers, and a single, thick horn envelops the back of her skull, like an Elizabethan collar.

She brings me deeper and deeper into the shadows beneath the barn, leading me down a forgotten hallway to a chamber piled high with bones. Some are still wet, glistening with blood and sinew. Ancient radio equipment sits in the corner, covered with layers of dust. I reach out and turn the radio on. It shouldn’t work without a power source. But it does. Her voice crackles through the speakers, wrapped in static. Her words are bloody and gelatinous. I need calcium now, she says, and collagen and marrow.

I look around. An antiquated reel-to-reel sits in one room. Others contain more scientific things, beakers and vials and broken glass jars. Then there are the cells. Their walls are splattered with foul dark stains. Death and madness hang in the air. The place reeks of coldness and precision.

They wanted to experiment, she says, in a burst of pink noise, with the very fabric of reality. They wanted to send a soul—a spy—through a radio transmission. Instead, they tore a rip in our world, and opened a door to places beyond time, where the last trace of light falls into the endless abyss. They were behind what happened with the USS Eldridge, you know. They silenced that. But I, I was special. I was chosen. I saw the face of eternity when I looked into the portal.

Things slither away from the light as I approach her. My feet crunch on beetles and worms, popping the decaying organs of man and beast. Filth squishes between my toes.

You were born here, she tells me.

In that moment, my soul splits open and escapes its shell, like a seed bursting apart for the plant within to grow.

Her voice fills the shadows.

They tried to carve the knowledge out of us with sharp steel things. They drew nightmares on our eyes, and trapped our screams in shiny jars. They dissected our fear, our pain, our hunger, and created alchemical formulas for our terrors. I don’t know everything that they were trying to do, those men in white coats, only that they dealt with portals and vortexes. Things they wanted no one to see.

A third eye erupts from her face, pus-filled and glistening with foul liquid. She raises her tentacles, and I see the egg sacs glistening beneath her arms. Her nose has become a beak, hooked and sharp. Her carapace is black and shiny, like onyx.

I look up into the sky—which I can see through the ground and roof above me—and see the face of eternity. It is monstrous. It is magnificent.

Her voice caresses my mind, a spider’s touch.

This is the beginning of your death. And of your rule.

The sound of static roars into my brain, scrambling my thoughts. Visions burst in my mind, blooms of fire and death. I should run. I should fight. Instead, I stand there, weak and broken, melting. She opens her scaly arms, and I fall into them, sobbing.

The word Mother tastes like blood on my tongue.

Something cold pierces my flesh.

I fall to my knees, suddenly hot and dizzy. I vomit a dark green bile that smokes and steams. White noise rushes through my veins, pounding in my ears.

She retreats to the shadows of a tunnel she has burrowed into the ground.

By the next morning, my arms and legs are covered with angry red blisters. They turn yellow in the center, while the edges darken to black and green. My tongue splits. A protrusion erupts from my forehead. The carbuncles keep growing, swelling with fluid and nightmares. My hair falls out. Cataracts cloud my eyes. Lesions block my ear canals. A thick horn grows around the back of my skull. Like hers, it cradles my head like an Elizabethan collar or Triceratops horn. I see with my new eye, which rests on a stalk above my head. I hear with the antennae that burst out of my skull.

The skin falls from my face. She picks it up and eats it, licking her claws.

She is pleased. She gives me bones to eat. I bite into dry, dusty femurs that splinter into shards in my mouth, suck marrow out of finger bones. It tastes oily and decadent. I swallow knowledge in fatty, gelatinous lumps. I can identify individual molecules now. I see both on a cellular level and on a galactic. They are the same, in varying proportions.

I find the records she saved for me in a rusted file cabinet. From them, I glean her story. Most of the papers are yellow with age. They crumble to dust at my touch. Some she encased in plastic, and only these survived the blood days and the seasons after them. I burn them after I read them. The words are seared into my brain. They remain there today, tucked in somewhere in that vortex of grey matter, membrane, and mystery.

Together we reopen the portal.

I give birth beneath the new moon. Screams split my lungs. My eyes rupture and run down my face in streams of warm, salty gel. My boils burst, and beautiful monsters crawl out of the pustules. Static crackles through the air as the transmission starts. She calls to celestial abominations, celebrating the birth of the darklings, broadcasting coded destruction into the night sky.

Grow, I whisper to my children. Grow and breed. The world will be yours one day.

They scuttle into the darkness, watching me with blood black eyes.

She leaves me skeletons to feed them with. Every day, a fresh pile appears at the door of the cell I have chosen. We save the bones of the men in white coats for special occasions. I discover some of the old recordings: random sequences of numbers read by what sounds like a young woman, the audio distorted by strange, staticky buzzes. I recognize her voice immediately.

Seasons of blood and madness.

I hide in the forest, watching occasional cars pass, the smell of exhaust sharp and pungent in my snout. My children grow. I bring them to the sea, to the desert, tenderly carrying them in wet skulls, in pockets of flesh, in my blisters, in my wounds. The others come and help, my brethren, the silent monstrosities waiting in the wood. They are quiet and meticulous, their pupil-less eyes pools of oblivion. I sense their thoughts, which they cast at me in clouds of white noise. They dream only of death, of ripe flesh tearing and bursting beneath their fangs. I speak to them in waves of static, alchemical patterns, the song of molecules and elements. My words travel through their cells. My thoughts explode in their flesh. My dreams burn in their blood and fester in their marrow. They feast on bones, and watch the night skies with eyes grown on stalks from their misshapen heads. They bring me gifts of bone and offal as blood fills their footsteps and their shadows. They are beautiful. They are horrendous. They are oblivion.

One day, they will blot out the sun and the blue sky will go dark forever.

One day, they will crack the moon and the dead clouds will shed the last of their color.

One day, we will shatter the banshee winds into pieces and chew the bones of the last human being.

I hover over the ancient radio, speaking to my scattered kin. Humanity has failed, I tell them. It is time for our kind. Night after night, I send the messages out, whispering visions of death and decay. She always wanted me to take over this sacred duty. I realize that when I eat her bones. The secrets are in her marrow, which is sweet and rich.

By spring, the machines have fallen silent, and the wind no longer carries the sound of human voices. My final transmission crosses an empty night sky, riding waves of static through the endless abyss.

I am the tomb of all hope, the queen of all hives.

The post PseudoPod 698: Of Marrow and Abomination – Narration Only appeared first on PseudoPod.

Apr 12 2020

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Rank #10: PseudoPod 444: Boys Will Be Boys

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“Boys Will Be Boys” first appeared in the Winter 1985/1986 issue of Hardboiled. This story, slightly revised, became a portion of the 1987 novel THE NIGHTRUNNERS.

Boys Will Be Boys

by Joe Lansdale

Not long ago, about a year back, a very rotten kid named Clyde Edson walked the Earth. He was street-mean and full of savvy and he knew what he wanted and got it anyway he wanted.

He lived in a big, evil house on a dying, grey street in Galveston, Texas, and he collected to him, like an old lady who brings in cats half-starved and near-eaten with mange, the human refuse and the young discards of a sick society.

He molded them. He breathed life into them. He made them feel they belonged. They were his creations, but he did not love them. They were just things to be toyed with until the paint wore thin and the batteries ran down, then out they went.

And this is the way it was until he met Brian Blackwood.

Things got worse after that.

The post PseudoPod 444: Boys Will Be Boys appeared first on PseudoPod.

Jun 26 2015

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Rank #11: PseudoPod 582: The Monster

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“The Monster” was originally printed in Strange Tales of Horror in 2011, and then reprinted in Crystal’s collection And They All Lived Happily Ever After! as well as the anthology Sycorax’s Daughters (where we ran across this)

Content Warning:

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Racial Slurs

The author’s inspiration for this story:

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The idea from this story came from two different incidents. Years ago when I was learning how to rollerblade I was cruising along Alki Beach. I was going faster than I should have because I hadn’t learned how to stop yet. So there was a car pulling out of the marina but he was looking the other way and didn’t see me and because I didn’t know how to stop I sped up. I passed in front of the car with only a half a foot between us and slammed into the back of a mountain of a man who was on the other side of the driveway. When he turned around I instantly regretted it as he had the words ‘WHITE’ and ‘POWER’ tattooed on each forearm and a large swastika tattooed on the side of his neck and he was huge and he looked at me like a concerned parent.

As he was helping to … the grass he bellowed at the driver, “What the hell is wrong with you, you coulda killed somebody!” Ok, so at this point there was maybe nine or ten other Hell’s Angel type of biker guys running from the bar across the street to their brother’s aide. The poor Mexican kid behind the wheel drove away.

Now I am surrounded by a bunch of men with racist tattoos, one of which who is kneeling at my feet and unlacing my skates, everyone is asking me if I was ok and I was so terrified by these guys I started crying. My tears prompted an even bigger man than the one I knocked the wind out of to send his girlfriend, named Spider, back into the bar to get me a glass of water. Another man helped me to my feet and asked me if I wanted a ride somewhere, and I said no, explaining that my car was parked only nine cars down. When Spider came back she handed me a can of lemonade, after promising everyone I was ok, and apologizing to “Mountain” for slamming into him I was allowed to leave.

Never in my life, as I walked barefoot on the hot pavement back to my car carrying my skates and lemonade, had I been so confused.

The second incident was day I sat down and wrote The Monster. There are some parts of my state that do not celebrate diversity and I was in one of those parts and had to stop for gas. The station is exactly like the one I wrote about, when I was going inside a guy was coming out, he wasn’t wearing a shirt because it warm that day, and he is the guy I based Caleb on, down to the last detail.

My heart started beating so fast that I thought I was gonna have a heart attack and this was my prayer please dear God, I can deal with anything he says to me, just don’t let him hit me. Not only did he not hit me, he didn’t say anything to me either. He opened his candy and waited for me because he was holding the door. I said thank you as I walked by him and he just nodded his head, jumped in his pick-up truck and left. I was like what in the hell. That encounter reminded me of the one years earlier and on the drive home I was left to wonder what makes a person abandon their oath? I pledged to protect this country against enemies both foreign and domestic and that’s a pretty big deal but so is walking around proudly displaying a swastika tattoo.

When I got home I wrote The Monster and I’ve been so surprised and amazed by the feedback I’ve received for this story.

The Monster

By Crystal Connor

1

After only four days of what was supposed to be a two-week visit, Maleka Davidson was leaving Alabama. Maleka hated this place. She was disgusted by the ignorance of poverty. The stifling heat reduced her to the sin of sloth. Her head hurt from trying to decipher these coded Southern sayings. Just last night, she figured out that the word Bard meant borrowed, Southern translation for the state of Georgia was Jawjuh, and that she was from the Nawth as in, and I quote, “Ya’ people from up Nawth sure do talk funny.” It was almost as if she needed an English-to-Southern-United-States dictionary.

Maleka was tired of eating fried food and drinking either grape or red Kool-Aid made with three cups of sugar, despite the directions clearly stating that only one cup was needed. Maleka was especially terrified of all the large and strange bugs that could star in their own horror movies. Maleka took a break from packing; even the slightest of physical activities made her sweat profusely. She lay on the bed and smiled about the conversation she had had with her uncle this morning at breakfast, revolving around the apparently sacred origins of grits.

“Maleka, y’all eat grits up Nawth?” Bryannah asked.

“Of course we do,” Maleka explained to her 12-year-old cousin. “There are quite a few farms within driving distance of Seattle that grow corn, but that…”

Bryannah looked puzzled and Uncle Emmit angrily interjected before Maleka could continue.

“Ain’t nothing as good as grits can be made from corn! Dontcha read yo’ bible?”

“My bible?”

“Exodus 16:15. What poured down upon hims chirren when they was roamin’ roun’ in dem woods was grits. It says so right in da Bible, ‘It’s the food the LORD has given you to eat.’

“So the manna that God rained on the Israelites on Mount Sinai was really grits?” Maleka asked slowly.

“Ain’t is what I said?”

Why not? Maleka had spent the last year fighting in the streets of a foreign country because someone had misinterpreted the holy writings of an ancient text, so why should it be any different right here at home? Using her toast as a spoon, Maleka took another bite of the buttery, salted grits and smiled. It was no wonder her uncle had mistaken them for ambrosia. Uncle Emmit went on to explain that after the miracle on Mount Sinai, there was no mention of grits for another 1,000 years. Experts, he explained, found evidence that grits were only used during secret religious ceremonies – and were kept away from the public due to their rarity.

The next mention of grits, he continued, “Was found in all dem ashes over there in Pompell in a famous woman’s diary.”

“Do you mean the ruins of Pompeii? What famous woman?” Maleka inquired.

“Herculaneum Jemimaneus.”

“Who?”

“Girl, you just as slow as molasses running downhill in January. Aunt Jemima.”

And if it wasn’t Uncle Emmit’s wild stories that re-invented history, it was her auntie Tammy’s constant complaint of how nothing made sense.

“Look at this damn blue bird sitting his ass upon that Goddamned tree branch! Look at him; that’s a damn shame. It just don’t make no damn sense!” No one offered that birds were supposed to be in trees; everyone just chuckled and shook their heads, and Maleka did the same.

Maleka knew she was going to miss them but she just couldn’t stay in the South. She was mortified that her extended family members, and their neighbors and friends seemed to perpetuate the negative stereotypes of blacks in the South. In her family’s defense, the whites down here didn’t seem much better. With their UFOs, swamp monsters, unfounded fear of the government, pickup trucks, and Confederate battle flags, Maleka couldn’t help but hear that banjo song from the movie Deliverance every time she listened to them talk.

The most unsettling thing about being in the South for Maleka was everyone’s devout belief in superstitions, and truth be told, this was the real reason she was leaving.

The woman who lived across the street from her grandmother’s house always dragged a broom behind her wherever she walked when she left the house, even if it was only to check the mail. When Maleka asked her great-grand-aunt why she did that, she was told, “Cuz she dohn wants deze fixuhs tuh git her foot track.” Maleka knew what fixuhs were before she had a chance to unpack. Fixuhs were evil spirits, and apparently, they were everywhere.

The first night Maleka stayed in her grandmother’s house, she noticed a broom upside down by her bedroom door. When she took the broom into the kitchen to put it away, pandemonium broke out.

Her cousin Maybell explained that the broom was placed outside her door to protect her from the hags, and that this protection was necessary because she had seen a hag with her own two eyes. Maleka thought if she drank as much as her cousin did, she would probably see things too. Not only were there hags but also there were signs, omens, dreams, mojo rings, witches, wearing a dime around your ankle, charms, talismans, myths and swamp monsters. Maleka’s sleep was unrestful, and during the day, she was jumpy and on edge.

“You all packed and ready to go?”

Maleka jumped nearly five feet off the bed at the sound of Leticia’s voice, and her cousin laughed until tears rained down her beautiful ebony face.

“Girl,” Leticia said as soon as she caught her breath. “You is just as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full o’ rocking chairs.”

“I must have dozed off; I didn’t hear you come in.” Maleka said through her smile. “Yeah, I’m almost done. I really didn’t have that much stuff to pack anyway.”

Leticia sat on the bed next to Maleka and pushed herself back until she was resting against the wall. Maleka did the same.

“You really can’t stay no longer?”

“Ticia, it’s so hot down here, I can barely think. Hey, why don’t you come up to Seattle? Once I get home and settled, I can buy you a plane ticket. You can stay as long as you like. I think you’ll like it. It’s really pretty, there’s lots of water, and its cool.”

“Girl, I ain’t never been on no airplane before.”

Maleka could hear the fear in her cousin’s voice. The two were the same age, 28, but her cousin had never traveled outside of her county.

“So? There’s a first time for everything. You can catch the Greyhound … I know! What about Amtrak? That’ll be cool … to ride the train across the country; I can even get you your own private cabin!”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, just think about it. OK?”

“I will.”

Both girls looked toward the door as their grandmother walked through it. Fat Mike was behind her, carrying a large Styrofoam cooler that looked heavy, even for him. Her grandmother had packed a feast that would have fed an army for a month.

The cooler was filled with fried-pork-chop sandwiches with mayo and hot sauce, buttermilk fried chicken, scuppernongs, Maypops, onion-and-tomato sandwiches, potato salad and macaroni salad, cracklings and half a dozen banana moon pies.

“Grandma, this is too much food. I’ll be home in just a few days.” Maleka really wasn’t protesting, because her grandmother had packed all of her favorite food, even if it was more than she could eat in just a few days.

Fat Mike went to load her car, and her grandmother sat on the edge of the rickety bed and touched Maleka’s face before she started talking.

“Now don’t you go wandering too far off de road, don’t let darkness catch ya’ and stay out dem woods at all cost. If you hear a chain rattlin’ on de tree, you best be movin’ along, cuz it might be a plat-eye.”

Great, Maleka thought. Just what I need, another Southern monster. She had no idea what a plat-eye was, and she wasn’t going to ask. She didn’t want to know. All she wanted was to be back in the Great Pacific Northwest where all she had to worry about was good old-fashion ghosts, Bigfoot, and the occasional serial killer.

Her grandmother handed Maleka a small burlap sack tied closed with a piece of twine. “Keep this witchya at all times, no matter what happens.”

Maleka took the little bag with trembling hands. She didn’t want to take this with her; she didn’t even want to touch it. This was what she wanted to get away from in the first place. Maleka dropped the amulet of protection into her handbag and gave her grandmother a big hug and kissed her goodbye.

2

On the winding road that seemed to stretch on forever, Maleka saw a filling station that looked like it hadn’t been updated or remodeled in the last 100 years. She even heard the cheerful “ding-ding” as she pulled up to the pump. The breeze in the wake of a passing semi felt good against her sticky skin. She was grateful for the cooler temperatures that were chasing the submerging rays of the sunset.

Maleka bought two bags of ice, a six-pack of Coke, oil, and a road map she had GPS on her cell phone, but she hadn’t had a signal in almost three hours. Maleka also bought 45 dollars’ worth of gas and some candy. The old man smiled at her as she dumped her stuff in front of him to ring up. Maleka returned his smile while looking away from his blue running eyes, wrinkled skin and broken teeth. As Maleka was rummaging through her purse for cash, because Visa wasn’t really everywhere that she wanted to be, the charm her grandmother gave her tumbled out on to the vintage countertop.

Maleka had made it halfway back to her car before the old attendant came chasing out behind her.

“Hey, girl, wait a minute, you done left yo charm.”

Maleka turned to the sound of his voice and almost ran from the man who was holding the small bag her grandmother had given her. When he extended it for her to take, she flinched away from it.

“Oh. Thank you, sir, but I don’t think I need it.”

The man looked at Maleka with a flash of anger and it was clear that he was personally offended by Maleka’s fear of it.

“Your peoples gave this to you for good reason. You need it for protection. I reckon you a long way from home, so I suggest that you take this with you.”

Maleka took a step away from the man and shook her head.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to mess with stuff you don’t understand.”

“Girl you don’t have to believe but you can’t afford not to listen.” The man warned as he walked up to her and dropped the charm into one of her bags.

Maleka slowly turned around and walked away from him, so shaken up that she almost forgot to pump her gas. She drained her cooler, crammed in the six cans of Coke, and replaced the melted ice. She added oil to her car, opened the map, charted her course, and cursed the non-existent signal on her phone. As Maleka was placing the trash into the plastic bags, her attention was once again drawn to the charm resting at the bottom. She tossed all the trash on top of it, balled up the bags, and threw them away. As she sped away, she noticed the old man watching her leave from the window.

Maleka had been driving in the dark for almost two hours. When she first learned how to drive the freeway scared her the most, but when her stepfather took her on her first night drive she was calm and confident.

When they drove at night, there was really no need for his instructions, so he just let her drive. The night lessons were Maleka’s favorite time with her stepfather. He didn’t warn her about the dangers of boys, drugs and alcohol, he did not bitch at her for not doing her chores or getting just a C on her math test, or quiz her about military terminology. It was just she and Dad spending a few hours at night driving under a blanket of stars. Maleka had always enjoyed driving at night; she appreciated the solitude and welcomed the memories.

She could have shot herself for tilting her head all the way back to drink the last of the Coke. She looked back at the road in time to see a deer bolt out in front of her car and freeze just a few feet ahead of her. Despite everything she had been taught and had heard, Maleka slammed on the brakes and yanked her wheel heavily to the right. Her car slid off the pavement and lost traction in the gravel. She tried to right herself but overcorrected, sending the vehicle over the yellow line. As she fought the car to avoid any oncoming traffic on the two-lane stretch of road, the car returned to the correct lane before leaving the road, going into a ditch, and slamming into a tree.

“Goddamn it!”

Maleka put the car in park but left the engine running, afraid that if she turned it off, she wouldn’t be able to restart it. The front of the car was damaged, but not badly enough to deploy the airbags. She rubbed her head, unhooked her seat belt, and snatched her cell phone off the floor in front of the seat next to her.

No service.

“Fuck!” Maleka threw the phone back on the floor with such force that it bounced up and landed on the passenger seat. Maleka pounded on the steering wheel and looked into the rearview mirror.

The deer was still standing in the middle of the road. It turned its head as if to look in the direction behind them before returning its gaze to the car. The deer raised its head to the sky, and Maleka watched the antlers of the large animal retract back into its head.

That’s not what you saw; you hit your head pretty hard, and your vision is blurry. That isn’t what you just saw.

Maleka watched the deer stand on its hind legs and take the form of a man. He started to walk slowly toward the car.

Don’t let darkness catch ya and stay out dem woods at all cost.

Maleka grabbed the rear view mirror and moved it so that she could watch the man approaching as she reached beneath her seat for her gun. Without taking her eyes off of the man in the rearview mirror, Maleka put her car in reverse and then back in drive and back again until she gently rocked her car out of the ditch.

Only when she got the car back on the road did she take her eyes off the man. She pulled away slowly, but as she picked up speed, the front bumper, which was being dragged beneath the car, punctured a tire. The car began to wobble before it took a nose dive to the right, the tire so damaged that she was driving on the rim. She drove another 200 feet before the car died completely. She was on a slight decline, so she let the car coast down a bit, then steered the car off to the side of the road when she felt it losing momentum.

“FUCK!”

A quick glance in both the side and rearview mirrors did not reveal the man’s whereabouts, but she knew he was still coming.

Maleka took a deep breath and let her training take over. Her mother taught her how to shoot with a Smith & Wesson model 29.44 Magnum, and her Uncle Sam had given her a badge marked “expert.”

The wonder nine that Maleka held in her hands was Smith & Wesson’s M&P, with a 17-round capacity, and a velocity 100 feet per second above what was advertised. Maleka had no doubt of the weapon’s capability, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she needed something more.

Keep this witchya at all times no matter what happens.

“Fuck.”

She pulled the lever on her seat until the headrest was lying on the back seat, then turned around, pressed her back into the steering wheel, and waited for the man, deer, or whatever the hell it was that caused this accident, to close the distance between them.

Maleka reached over, opened the glove box, and grabbed the four extra high-capacity magazines. She grabbed the phone off of the passenger seat and shoved the clips and phone into the back pockets of her blue jeans. It wasn’t long after that she saw the top of the man’s head crest the hill.

“Guard me, O Lord, from the hands of the wicked; protect me from the violent …” Maleka’s prayer was interrupted by movement on the edges of her peripheral vision. Maleka was hesitant to take her eyes off of the approaching man, but whatever was on the other side of the road was closer to her than he was. Her eyes slowly traveled to the view outside of her driver’s-side window. Her eyes seemed to almost drag her head with them. Blurs of black and gray shapes became sharp lines, defined images … more deer, methodically taking the shape of man.

Don’t panic.

“Deliver me from those who work evil; from the bloodthirsty, save me.” As if adding an exclamation point to her prayer, she pulled the trigger, killing a beast whose metamorphosis was nearly complete.

The rear window imploded. In the rain of broken glass and shadows Maleka fired six more rounds in rapid succession, crawled to the passenger side of her car, and ran into the deep, tangled abyss that is the Alabama wilderness.

Don’t let darkness catch ya’, and stay out dem woods at all cost.

3

The tree-lined paved road was lit by stars, but Maleka was plunged into absolute darkness once she entered the forest. After nearly tripping and breaking her ankle, Maleka kicked off her flip-flops and immediately gained speed. It was a double-edged sword, as her tender spa-pampered feet quickly yielded to the unforgiving rough terrain of sharp rocks, jagged twigs, and tangled and knotted tree roots that carpeted the floor of the wilderness.

As she ran, she unbuckled her belt and threaded her gun through it so that she wouldn’t lose it. She refastened the belt loose; the gun beat against her thigh as she ran, but she wanted to be able to maneuver her weapon freely when she needed to.

Instinctively, she stopped running. Maleka slowly, blindly, extended her hand out in front of her, and before her arm was fully outstretched, her fingertips brushed against the rough bark of a large tree. Maleka stepped closer, put her cheek against the tree, and then extended her arms outward as if to give the tree a hug. With her arms fully extended, the tips of her stretched and exploring fingers still felt bark on both sides.

Maleka kept her right hand on the tree and used her left hand as a feeler to detect any other large objects in front of her, until the large timber that blocked her path was behind her.

Her fear heightened her sense of awareness, and her deprivation of sight sharpened her ability to hear, Maleka found it easier to just close her eyes rather than peer into the darkness. She controlled her breathing and concentrated on the muted sounds of the forest.

The terrain underfoot became soft. Instead of rocks, pinecones, and fallen branches, Maleka felt leaves, moss, and mud. She stood still, cocked her head, and listened. The absence of sound alarmed her, but she continued to walk, slowly at first, then faster and faster until she was once again running at full tilt.

The ground was soft and soundless, but as she picked up speed, she heard branches snapping behind her to her left. Hoping to achieve the same level of strength, speed, and victory as the Greek Goddess Nike, Maleka ran. And ran, and ran.

And slammed into a low-hanging branch.

There was a flash of bright light around the edges of her vision, her feet swung out from under her, and she landed on her back. Her lower back just above her tailbone exploded in pain as it came into contact with a fallen log, and as her head bounced off the ground, Maleka bit her tongue. Running headlong into a thick branch had caused worse injuries than the car accident.

Maleka swallowed blood and listened to the sounds of the forest. Nothing.

She performed a quick mental diagnostic of her body and categorized her injuries.

She told herself she was fine and slowly sat up. Without warning, it started raining, not the light misty drizzle that she was accustomed to in Seattle, but a hard and heavy downpour of torrential rain of biblical proportions.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Maleka screamed up to the heavens. “Is this your idea of a joke? Well I don’t think it’s funny! Didn’t you hear me calling you for help?”

Maleka was standing, though she did not remember the physical act of standing up. Her hands were balled into tight fists, and she was defiantly staring into the night sky and blinking away the rain. A voice in her head suggested that maybe this was not the way she should be talking to God, but she was so desperately angry and so thoroughly terrified that she couldn’t stop herself.

“Give me a fucking break, answer my prayer, do something! I’m not asking you to part the sea; I’m just asking for a little help. Is that asking for too much? Are you there?”

God did not answer her. She couldn’t hear anything over the rain. She still couldn’t see anything, but she didn’t want to just stand there, so despite nearly having been decapitated, Maleka started running. She counted her steps as she ran. There were 2,112 military steps in one mile with a 30-inch step. Maleka’s running stride was 70 inches, so she knew she had run nearly two miles since plowing into that tree.

The soft mud that had padded Maleka’s footfalls was now an enemy combatant. Encouraged by the rain, the mud became thick and hostile, her feet were buried to her ankles with each step, she had to use force to wrangle her foot free, and before she knew it, she was calf deep in mud.

“This is fucking bullshit.”

Maleka took a deep breath, turned around, and slowly made her way out of the deep mud. A bolt of lightning arched across the sky. In the flash of light, Maleka saw that she was in a small valley. It took Maleka almost a full minute to register what she had seen on the valley ridge.

Her pursuers had morphed themselves into one of the most feared and formidable canines on both the face of the planet and in the depths of nightmares.

The wolf.

Maleka now had to run from a pack of dogs that had the ability to run at speeds of at least 40 miles per hour and sustain those speeds for several miles at a time.

Though there was nothing remotely humorous in Maleka’s situation, she started laughing.

4

Maleka bolted away from the descending predators. It took her ninety steps to reach the slight incline that marked the valley wall. Digging in with hands, forearms, knees, and feet, she scrambled up the hill. When she reached flat land, she stood up and ran. Maleka counted sixty steps before she tripped over an exposed tree root. She reached out with her hands to break her fall, but she kept falling.

Maleka slammed to the ground on her shoulder and began to tumble, roll, and slide. Once again, she was laughing, and she received a mouthful of dirt, leaves, and, to her utter horror, a bug. She hated watching the damsel in distress trip and fall in horror movies, and yet here she was falling for the second time.

Did she see lights? Maleka slid to a stop on her face, stood up, and ran. She did see lights. The lights that shone through the window of the cabin were like a beacon promising a safe haven from this storm.

She could hear the footsteps of the dogs behind her. She thought she heard them running past her as well, and knew that they were racing ahead to cut her off and surround her.

With every breath she took, she inhaled fire. Both of her feet were swollen, cut, and bleeding. Pain exploded from her feet to her jaw with each step she took. Her hands, arms, and face were scratched and cut. The pain in her side was so intense, she might as well have been pierced by the Spear of Destiny. The trees blocked out the light of the moon. It was so dark that she couldn’t even see the tips of her fingers on her outstretched arms. She’d just returned home from the war and was in excellent physical condition; otherwise, she would have been caught two miles ago. She kept running. She ran faster.

She was so close that the warm light glowing in the window offered her enough light to see the edges of her surroundings, but she didn’t look at what was moving within the shadows. She jumped over the four steps of the cabin’s patio and slammed her shoulder into the door, expecting resistance, but with one turn of the knob, the door opened.

The rug slid under her feet and she almost fell … again. As Maleka regained her balance, the only thing she saw was a pair of denim-blue eyes. It took three seconds for Maleka’s vision to pan out, allowing the panoramic view of the inside of the cabin to come into focus.

The man she was looking at was shirtless and tattooed. On his broad and chiseled chest was an eagle in flight, and clutched within its mighty talons was a large swastika. The man was sitting in a chair, his foot on the edge of the table, and his chair was tipped back on the two hind legs. Covering the wall he was against was a large Confederate battle flag – an image that, for the majority of black people living in the United States, is a symbol of racism. His hair might have been red or blond, but his head was shaved. He wasn’t alone. Another man stood by the window, and yet another sat on a small sofa directly in front of the man she had first seen.

Maleka spun around, slammed the door closed, and engaged the deadbolt.

Once the door was closed, she saw a large chair. It was as heavy as it looked, and she had to use all her strength to drag it to the door and position the chair under the door handle. Maleka stumbled a few steps back and turned to face the men she had locked herself inside with.

For almost five minutes, no one spoke.

She pressed her hand to the pain in her side and took a closer look at the guy by the window. He wasn’t standing, as she first thought; he was sitting on top of some type of cabinet. He had a huge sucker in his mouth, and she could smell the cherry scent of the candy from the other side of the room. He had the same denim colored eyes as the one leaning back in his chair. He wasn’t completely bald, because his red hair had grown out a little. It reminded Maleka of a peach.

The thought of such a juicy fruit only served to underscore the dryness of her parched throat. As if reading her mind, he tightened the cap on his bottle of water and tossed it to Maleka. She drank it down greedily. Cool water ran down the sides of her mouth as she drank, as much as she could before she started coughing.

Both of the man’s arms from shoulder to wrist were covered in colorful, incredibly detailed tattoos, but what stood out the most were the flags. On the inside of his upper right arm, near his chest, was a tattoo of a red flag with a black swastika in the center. On the left was the American flag. The man sitting on the couch wore a Dewalt wife-beater and was wearing a ball cap that read, “The South shall rise again.” At first she thought they all looked the same, but it was clear to her that the one leaning back in his chair and the one in the window were related, possibly brothers.

The cabin was just one big square room, the kitchen was along the wall to her left, and the view from that window was of more woods. A large brick fireplace sat in the center of the widest wall, and there was a door off to the side that Maleka guessed to be a bathroom. There were three sleeping bags rolled up in the corner along with three backpacks and a slew of hunting rifles.

Along the wall above the couch hung pictures of Hitler standing in a moving Jeep, bikini-clad blond women displaying tools, and redheads posing with cars. There was also a poster of the University of Alabama football team running on the field. Maleka was surprised to see that poster hanging so proudly, as most of the players in the poster were black.

Finally, the guy in the window swirled his candy to one side of his mouth and asked, “So what the fuck are you running from to make you think you’re safer in here with us than out there with a gun strapped to your belt?”

“A pack of wolves,” Maleka answered.

“No ma’am, you might wanna try that again. We ain’t got no wolves down here.” The candy man explained.

“I know, but they weren’t wolves at first.” Maleka’s thoughts were jumbled and confused, and so were her words. She heard herself talking and was afraid that she wasn’t making any sense.

“See, she told me to keep it with me, then I didn’t think I needed it, so I threw it away.”

“You threw what away?”

“I really didn’t think it would do any good; it’s just a stupid superstition.”

He slowly took the candy out of his mouth and asked again, “You threw what away?”

“The man at the gas station tried to give it back to me, but I didn’t take it.”

“HEY!” he shouted. “Do you hear me fucking talking to you? I’m not going to ask you again. What did you throw away?”

“The charm.”

“The charm?” He echoed. “What charm, what was it for?”

Maleka noticed how his eyes lowered to the gold cross she was wearing around her neck as he asked the question.

“It was to protect me from the monster.”

The man leaning in the chair slowly lowered it back to all four legs, and the one on the couch took off his ball cap and ran his hand through his thick blond hair. As his blond locks unraveled to fall against his sculpted shoulders, Maleka knew without a doubt that this man was a direct descendant of Thor.

Maleka could see the conversation the men were having with their eyes, but she had no idea what they were saying.

“Travis, she’s high. She’s probably from California, and they say they got some good-ass weed out there.”

The three of them shared a laugh as Travis put the candy back in his mouth and leaned against the window.

“I’m not high, and I’m not from California,” Maleka hissed.

Travis shrugged his shoulders. “That might be so, girl, but you ain’t from around here. You say you ain’t high, but you done spooked yourself so bad you ain’t thinking straight, and you ain’t making no damn sense, so I can’t tell either way.”

“I scared myself?” Maleka was furious.

“What you was running from is most likely coyotes.”

“I know the fucking difference between a wolf and a coyote,” she started, but the man in the chair interrupted her.

“Really, Big City? Because you said they weren’t wolves at first, so what were they then, dingos?”

More laughter.

“Fuck you!”

“Fuck you too, you stupid fucking nigger cunt bitch! There ain’t no fucking wolves down here. The only dogs we have out there in our woods are the coyote and maybe … maybe a pack of strays. You was running through the woods at night. It’s dark out there, and the woods has a way of playing tricks with your senses. You was just seeing things.”

“Caleb’s right,” Travis explained. “You fucking people are all the same; you come down South and act like it’s a trip to the fucking zoo. Y’all come down here so that you can laugh at us ignorant, po’ white trash, redneck hillbillies, and point at the dumbass country niggers.”

“Y’all watch movies like Deliverance and think we’re just a bunch of inbreeds sitting down here making moonshine, playing banjos, eating fried chicken and spitting out watermelon seeds. Then the next thing you know, y’all is running through the woods in the middle of the night, shooting at shadows and running from dogs that are expecting to be hand fed.”

More laughter. Maleka started to say something, but stopped. She turned her head toward the door. The others heard it too. Scratching. The door shook gently. Something heavy landed on the roof, and the ceiling creaked in protest under the weight of whatever was walking across it. Everyone looked up at once.

The door shook again, forcefully this time. Travis tracked the footsteps on the roof with his head, leaning farther and farther back until he was looking directly above him.

There was a long deep howl lasting almost 10 seconds before the others in the pack answered the call.

Everyone started moving at once. Maleka unhooked her gun from her belt and reached into her pockets for the extra clips. Without taking his eyes off the ceiling, Travis stood, slowly turned around, and closed the interior shutters.

Caleb grabbed the hunting rifles that had been leaning against the fireplace. The man sitting on the couch flew past Maleka to close the shutters in the kitchen. He closed them in the nick of time. The glass in the kitchen window shattered, but the shutter was not breached.

“Ryan,” Caleb called and tossed a rifle to the man who now stood behind Maleka.

The silence that followed was deafening. With the enveloping hush, everyone looked at Maleka, who was looking at Caleb with a look that said I told you so.

When Maleka had first tried to explain the night’s events Travis thought it was a joke. Now he thought it was her fault. He flew from the window to loom over her.

“You fucking threw the Goddamn charm away? You just fucking threw it away?”

Travis was a whole foot taller than Maleka, and as he screamed down at her, she realized that the candy he had had in his mouth was not cherry flavored but, in fact, strawberry.

Neither his size nor his proximity intimidated Maleka, since both were to her advantage. Her situational awareness was acute. Maleka had mentally established that inside the cabin was her zone of security, and she knew where everything was.

From a very early age, Caleb had developed a healthy fear of women and learned to never underestimate their capacity for brutality nor be surprised by the vicious glee with which they carried out their monstrous deeds. Caleb did not like the way the girl’s demeanor had changed, and though he couldn’t pinpoint what had changed he just knew something had.

“Travis.”

“If you knew it was to keep you safe, why did you fucking throw it away?”

She knew how much room she had to maneuver. She knew how many steps it would take to reach Caleb, understood that he would have to be the next one neutralized, because under no circumstances was she going back outside into unfamiliar terrain while it was dark.

With eight older sisters, a mother who was acquitted for the slaughter of his father, and having served a ten-year prison sentence for killing a woman who was doing her best to kill him, Caleb had firsthand knowledge of how truly cruel and dangerous a woman could be, and he understood that they were in no way, shape, or form the weaker sex.

“Travis.”

“Y’all think y’all so much better than us, so sophisticated and educated.”

Maleka’s breathing slowed. She was unprepared to deal with deer that changed themselves into people and then changed themselves into wolves, but fighting men was what she had been trained to do, and she had seventeen confirmed kills under her belt just this year alone. Her personal best so far.

That was what it was. She was calm, almost relaxed. Travis was a big guy.

Most people who saw him coming would quickly look for the nearest exit, or cross the street. No one ever made eye contact with him, but this girl was looking him right in the eye and didn’t even flinch, and Caleb didn’t like that.

“Travis.”

Maleka slowly slid one foot in front of the other, but kept her hands at her sides, thus assuming a basic battle stance. Close-quarters combat was Maleka’s specialty. Because of her stealth, speed, agility, and ferocity in hand-to-hand combat, comrades in her unit started calling her “the black mamba.” Most people didn’t see her coming, and those who did lacked the necessary training to defend themselves, and perished. And such would be the case with Travis.

Before he realized that he had even stood up, Caleb found himself by his brother’s side. He gently pulled Travis away from Maleka and protectively stood between them.

“What the fuck were you doing out in the woods at night for anyway?” Travis demanded over Caleb’s shoulder.

“They crashed my car.”

“Of course they fucking crashed your car! Dumbass.” Travis was furious and pacing back and forth.

“I don’t understand why you’re so upset, Travis,” Maleka taunted. “You said I was shooting at shadows and running from dogs that are expecting to be hand fed. Maybe we should open the door and give them some doggie treats and scratch their heads.”

For a frightening second, Caleb was unsure if he was going to be able to restrain his brother. He would have loved nothing more than to knock that smug smirk off her face, but Caleb had a feeling that was exactly what she wanted, and he refused to be baited.

“Travis, there are four of us in here and enough guns for us to have three each. We just have to maintain our zone of security until morning, and then we’ll be able to offer adequate cover to reach the truck. The nearest town will be our extraction point.”

Travis and Caleb looked at each other in astonishment, and Maleka fought feelings of frustration.

“Extraction point?” Travis echoed. “Are you in the Army?”

Something else jumped onto the roof. The door bulged in violently as if kicked, but the chair under the doorknob held.

“These ain’t terrorists you was shooting at out there. There ain’t no fucking extraction point, and in case you haven’t noticed, we’re surrounded. The cavalry ain’t coming, and you just fucking got us all killed.”

Maleka was losing her patience with Travis.

“I killed two of them in the street.”

“Did you kill them, or did you just shoot them?”

The voice came from behind her. Maleka pivoted 180 degrees and took three steps back so that her back was toward the door and the three men were in view full.

“You said at first they weren’t wolves, so then, what were they?”

Whatever was on the roof was now jumping, as if trying to stomp its way through. The door was kicked again and splintered along the hinges. The front-room window shattered. The noise outside sounded like breaking tree branches, and a mixture of hyena calls and wolf howls. Ryan burst into hysterical laughter, and Maleka decided it wasn’t such a good idea to have her back to the door.

“Ok, Big-City, if you have a plan to get us all outta here alive, you might want to tell us, because that would be some pretty good fucking information to have right about now.”

Before Maleka had the time to ignore Travis’s hysteria, Ryan asked his question again.

“What were they at first?”

Before Maleka had a chance to answer, Caleb offered his hypothesis. “So what are we dealing with here, werewolves? Well, if that’s the case, we’re all fucked because none of these bullets are silver.”

“Can they fucking do that? The moon’s not even full!”

As Travis’s question drifted slowly toward silence, all of the men turned to Maleka for the answer. She thought that she was going to collapse as the heavy weight of how truly dire their situation was settled upon her shoulders. As if things were not challenging enough, unlike the men in her unit, these guys were not going to just do what they were told, and Travis was already becoming a problem.

Maleka’s plan A was to stay inside the cabin until daylight, but whatever monster had chased her in here, and had been kicking the door and jumping on the roof, had a different idea. Maleka was going to have to come up with a plan B and C and a contingency plan, and she should have done that 20 minutes ago.

Maleka took Caleb’s rifle to inspect it and was disappointed at her discovery. Caleb’s weapon of choice was a Winchester Model 70. A bolt rifle.

This was the perfect weapon for a sniper – and of course to use for hunting – but the mere seconds it took to reload this gun manually would cost someone their life in a combat situation. With a quick scan of all the weapons, she knew she wouldn’t find what she was looking for.

“What’s the matter?”

Maleka handed Caleb his gun back.

“I was really hoping for a semiautomatic, or at least a gun that could have been easily converted. Even a revolver would be nice. Are there any handguns here?”

“Semiautomatic?” Caleb asked. “I guess if you’re hunting people but we came out here to hunt deer. I got a Colt .38 out in the truck.”

“My state allows the use of semiautomatic for big-game hunting,” Maleka explained. “And the last thing anyone is doing right now is going outside.”

“What’s considered big-game hunting in California … a Colombian drug lord?”

Maleka wanted nothing more than to knock Travis unconscious with the butt of his own gun, but as the best possible defense plan formulated in her mind, she knew she was going to need him.

“I’m not from California, Travis. I’m from Washington. Is there a window in the bathroom?”

“No,” they all answered at once. Finally, God had answered her prayer.

Maleka opened the door to the small bathroom and asked Ryan to drag over the chair that Caleb had been sitting in. She used the chair to hold the door open, then lined the bathtub with sleeping bags.

Because Caleb was the tallest, he was the one she put in the bathtub, and he was thankful for the padding of the sleeping bags, as he would be shooting directly over Maleka’s head from a kneeling position. Maleka wanted the gunfire aimed in such a way as to produce highest the concentration of fatalities. It was one thing to shoot at the heads of unsuspecting elk. It was another thing entirely to be shooting at moving targets that had the ability to change from one creature to another, and whose sole purpose was your demise. Travis’s position was on the ledge of the tub, and Ryan sat on the toilet. They would surround her as she sat on the floor, and her goal was to provide them with enough automatic fire to give them enough time to reload their guns.

With the men in place, Maleka moved the two floor lamps to each side of the bathroom door and used the outlets in the bathroom to plug them in. She directed the swivel heads of the lamps toward the cabin door and turned all the other lights in the cabin off. Just like a cop shining his light into your car window, not only would the bright lights of the 100-watt bulbs blind anyone, or anything, coming through the door, the intense white light directed outwards would provide a safe haven of darkness behind which they could hide.

They sat in the silent dark for almost twenty minutes, and when Travis started talking, it startled everyone.

“Caleb,” he said. “I think you’re the coolest mother-fucking man I ever met.”

The iron shutters on both windows started to rattle. Caleb cleared his throat, but when he started talking, his voice was full of emotion.

“You’ve always followed me. No matter where I went, I knew if I ever wanted my little brother, all I had to do was turn around and you’d be there. In all my life, this is the only time I wish you hadn’t followed me.”

Hearing Travis and Caleb say goodbye was more than Maleka could deal with. She had fought in four theaters in places that you would never be able to find on a map, just to be killed in her own country by a fiend that should not exist.

Keep this witchya at all times no matter what happens.

There was nothing she could do about it now, and Travis had been right all along. She indeed had killed them all. This was so unfair; it was just a stupid superstition, none of this was real. Except it was.

“I’m sorry.”

Maleka wasn’t just apologizing to Caleb, Travis, and Ryan. She was also apologizing to her cousin Maybell who put a broom by her bedroom door to keep her safe from the terrors that lurked in the night. She was apologizing to her grandmother, who had given her a gift that was meant to see her through on her journey, and to the gas-station attendant who knew how important it was when he tried to give it back after she left it on the counter. But more importantly, Maleka apologized to God for her earlier blasphemous display of disobedience.

With a final kick, the door broke in half, flying inwards in two pieces, and as the wind and the monsters rushed in, everyone started shooting.

The post PseudoPod 582: The Monster appeared first on PseudoPod.

Feb 16 2018

55mins

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Rank #12: PseudoPod 520: Dermot

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“Dermot” was first printed in Black Static, Issue 24 August-September 2011.

Dermot

by Simon Bestwick

The bus turns left off Langworthy Road and onto the approach to the A6.  Just before it goes under the overpass, past the old Jewish cemetery at the top of Brindleheath Road and on past Pendleton Church, it stops and Dermot gets on.

He gets a few funny looks, does Dermot, as he climbs aboard, but then he always does.  It’s hard for people to put their fingers on it.  Maybe it’s the way his bald head looks a bit too big.  Or the fishy largeness of his eyes behind the jar-thick spectacles.  The nervous quiver of his pale lips, perhaps.

Or perhaps it’s just how pale he is.  How smooth.  His skin- his face, his hands- are baby-smooth and baby-soft.  Like they’ve never known work, and hardly ever known light.  

All that and he’s in a suit, too.  Quite an old suit, and it’s not a perfect fit- maybe a size too large- but it’s neat and clean and well-maintained.  Pressed.  Smooth.

And of course, there’s the briefcase.

It’s old-fashioned, like something out of the ‘seventies, made out of plain brown leather.  He doesn’t carry it by the handle.  He hugs it close against his chest.  Like a child.

The post PseudoPod 520: Dermot appeared first on PseudoPod.

Dec 10 2016

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Rank #13: PseudoPod 529: Luella Miller

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“Luella Miller” was first published in Everybody’s Magazine, December 1902.

Pseudopod wants to direct your attention to a project by one of our Authors, Greg Stolze. This is a good time to go back and relisten to episode 317, Enzymes.

YOU is a novel, set in the universe of the democratic horror game Unknown Armies, which pits readers against a book that hates them while situating them in the person of a middle-aged businessman named Leo Evans.

Leo is divorced, a fan of racquet sports, and a cultist of the Necessary Servant—a quasi-religion he freely admits seems silly, except for the way it grants him extra senses and paranormal abilities. The chief cultist, however, is his ex-wife, and the two of them clash over a key question of what it means to truly “serve” with integrity.

In the process of hashing all this out, Leo must survive a couple attempts on his life, come to grips with an enchantment that makes him hate the person he previously loved most, and deal with lingering issues between himself and his son.

This novel is Kickstarting in February, check the trailer at www.gregstolze.com/you

Luella Miller

by Mary Wilkins-Freeman

Close to the village street stood the one-story house in which Luella Miller, who had an evil name in the village, had dwelt. She had been dead for years, yet there were those in the village who, in spite of the clearer light which comes on a vantage-point from a long-past danger, half believed in the tale which they had heard from their childhood. In their hearts, although they scarcely would have owned it, was a survival of the wild horror and frenzied fear of their ancestors who had dwelt in the same age with Luella Miller. Young people even would stare with a shudder at the old house as they passed, and children never played around it as was their wont around an untenanted building. Not a window in the old Miller house was broken: the panes reflected the morning sunlight in patches of emerald and blue, and the latch of the sagging front door was never lifted, although no bolt secured it. Since Luella Miller had been carried out of it, the house had had no tenant except one friendless old soul who had no choice between that and the far-off shelter of the open sky. This old woman, who had survived her kindred and friends, lived in the house one week, then one morning no smoke came out of the chimney, and a body of neighbours, a score strong, entered and found her dead in her bed. There were dark whispers as to the cause of her death, and there were those who testified to an expression of fear so exalted that it showed forth the state of the departing soul upon the dead face. The old woman had been hale and hearty when she entered the house, and in seven days she was dead; it seemed that she had fallen a victim to some uncanny power. The minister talked in the pulpit with covert severity against the sin of superstition; still the belief prevailed. Not a soul in the village but would have chosen the almshouse rather than that dwelling. No vagrant, if he heard the tale, would seek shelter beneath that old roof, unhallowed by nearly half a century of superstitious fear.

There was only one person in the village who had actually known Luella Miller. That person was a woman well over eighty, but a marvel of vitality and unextinct youth. Straight as an arrow, with the spring of one recently let loose from the bow of life, she moved about the streets, and she always went to church, rain or shine. She had never married, and had lived alone for years in a house across the road from Luella Miller’s.

This woman had none of the garrulousness of age, but never in all her life had she ever held her tongue for any will save her own, and she never spared the truth when she essayed to present it. She it was who bore testimony to the life, evil, though possibly wittingly or designedly so, of Luella Miller, and to her personal appearance. When this old woman spoke—and she had the gift of description, although her thoughts were clothed in the rude vernacular of her native village—one could seem to see Luella Miller as she had really looked. According to this woman, Lydia Anderson by name, Luella Miller had been a beauty of a type rather unusual in New England. She had been a slight, pliant sort of creature, as ready with a strong yielding to fate and as unbreakable as a willow. She had glimmering lengths of straight, fair hair, which she wore softly looped round a long, lovely face. She had blue eyes full of soft pleading, little slender, clinging hands, and a wonderful grace of motion and attitude.

“Luella Miller used to sit in a way nobody else could if they sat up and studied a week of Sundays,” said Lydia Anderson, “and it was a sight to see her walk. If one of them willows over there on the edge of the brook could start up and get its roots free of the ground, and move off, it would go just the way Luella Miller used to. She had a green shot silk she used to wear, too, and a hat with green ribbon streamers, and a lace veil blowing across her face and out sideways, and a green ribbon flyin’ from her waist. That was what she came out bride in when she married Erastus Miller. Her name before she was married was Hill. There was always a sight of “l’s” in her name, married or single. Erastus Miller was good lookin’, too, better lookin’ than Luella. Sometimes I used to think that Luella wa’n’t so handsome after all. Erastus just about worshiped her. I used to know him pretty well. He lived next door to me, and we went to school together. Folks used to say he was waitin’ on me, but he wa’n’t. I never thought he was except once or twice when he said things that some girls might have suspected meant somethin’. That was before Luella came here to teach the district school. It was funny how she came to get it, for folks said she hadn’t any education, and that one of the big girls, Lottie Henderson, used to do all the teachin’ for her, while she sat back and did embroidery work on a cambric pocket-handkerchief. Lottie Henderson was a real smart girl, a splendid scholar, and she just set her eyes by Luella, as all the girls did. Lottie would have made a real smart woman, but she died when Luella had been here about a year—just faded away and died: nobody knew what ailed her. She dragged herself to that schoolhouse and helped Luella teach till the very last minute. The committee all knew how Luella didn’t do much of the work herself, but they winked at it. It wa’n’t long after Lottie died that Erastus married her. I always thought he hurried it up because she wa’n’t fit to teach. One of the big boys used to help her after Lottie died, but he hadn’t much government, and the school didn’t do very well, and Luella might have had to give it up, for the committee couldn’t have shut their eyes to things much longer. The boy that helped her was a real honest, innocent sort of fellow, and he was a good scholar, too. Folks said he overstudied, and that was the reason he was took crazy the year after Luella married, but I don’t know. And I don’t know what made Erastus Miller go into consumption of the blood the year after he was married: consumption wa’n’t in his family. He just grew weaker and weaker, and went almost bent double when he tried to wait on Luella, and he spoke feeble, like an old man. He worked terrible hard till the last trying to save up a little to leave Luella. I’ve seen him out in the worst storms on a wood-sled—he used to cut and sell wood—and he was hunched up on top lookin’ more dead than alive. Once I couldn’t stand it: I went over and helped him pitch some wood on the cart—I was always strong in my arms. I wouldn’t stop for all he told me to, and I guess he was glad enough for the help. That was only a week before he died. He fell on the kitchen floor while he was gettin’ breakfast. He always got the breakfast and let Luella lay abed. He did all the sweepin’ and the washin’ and the ironin’ and most of the cookin’. He couldn’t bear to have Luella lift her finger, and she let him do for her. She lived like a queen for all the work she did. She didn’t even do her sewin’. She said it made her shoulder ache to sew, and poor Erastus’s sister Lily used to do all her sewin’. She wa’n’t able to, either; she was never strong in her back, but she did it beautifully. She had to, to suit Luella, she was so dreadful particular. I never saw anythin’ like the fagottin’ and hemstitchin’ that Lily Miller did for Luella. She made all Luella’s weddin’ outfit, and that green silk dress, after Maria Babbit cut it. Maria she cut it for nothin’, and she did a lot more cuttin’ and fittin’ for nothin’ for Luella, too. Lily Miller went to live with Luella after Erastus died. She gave up her home, though she was real attached to it and wa’n’t a mite afraid to stay alone. She rented it and she went to live with Luella right away after the funeral.”

Then this old woman, Lydia Anderson, who remembered Luella Miller, would go on to relate the story of Lily Miller. It seemed that on the removal of Lily Miller to the house of her dead brother, to live with his widow, the village people first began to talk. This Lily Miller had been hardly past her first youth, and a most robust and blooming woman, rosy-cheeked, with curls of strong, black hair overshadowing round, candid temples and bright dark eyes. It was not six months after she had taken up her residence with her sister-in-law that her rosy colour faded and her pretty curves became wan hollows. White shadows began to show in the black rings of her hair, and the light died out of her eyes, her features sharpened, and there were pathetic lines at her mouth, which yet wore always an expression of utter sweetness and even happiness. She was devoted to her sister; there was no doubt that she loved her with her whole heart, and was perfectly content in her service. It was her sole anxiety lest she should die and leave her alone.

“The way Lily Miller used to talk about Luella was enough to make you mad and enough to make you cry,” said Lydia Anderson. “I’ve been in there sometimes toward the last when she was too feeble to cook and carried her some blanc-mange or custard—somethin’ I thought she might relish, and she’d thank me, and when I asked her how she was, say she felt better than she did yesterday, and asked me if I didn’t think she looked better, dreadful pitiful, and say poor Luella had an awful time takin’ care of her and doin’ the work—she wa’n’t strong enough to do anythin’—when all the time Luella wa’n’t liftin’ her finger and poor Lily didn’t get any care except what the neighbours gave her, and Luella eat up everythin’ that was carried in for Lily. I had it real straight that she did. Luella used to just sit and cry and do nothin’. She did act real fond of Lily, and she pined away considerable, too. There was those that thought she’d go into a decline herself. But after Lily died, her Aunt Abby Mixter came, and then Luella picked up and grew as fat and rosy as ever. But poor Aunt Abby begun to droop just the way Lily had, and I guess somebody wrote to her married daughter, Mrs. Sam Abbot, who lived in Barre, for she wrote her mother that she must leave right away and come and make her a visit, but Aunt Abby wouldn’t go. I can see her now. She was a real good-lookin’ woman, tall and large, with a big, square face and a high forehead that looked of itself kind of benevolent and good. She just tended out on Luella as if she had been a baby, and when her married daughter sent for her she wouldn’t stir one inch. She’d always thought a lot of her daughter, too, but she said Luella needed her and her married daughter didn’t. Her daughter kept writin’ and writin’, but it didn’t do any good. Finally she came, and when she saw how bad her mother looked, she broke down and cried and all but went on her knees to have her come away. She spoke her mind out to Luella, too. She told her that she’d killed her husband and everybody that had anythin’ to do with her, and she’d thank her to leave her mother alone. Luella went into hysterics, and Aunt Abby was so frightened that she called me after her daughter went. Mrs. Sam Abbot she went away fairly cryin’ out loud in the buggy, the neighbours heard her, and well she might, for she never saw her mother again alive. I went in that night when Aunt Abby called for me, standin’ in the door with her little green-checked shawl over her head. I can see her now. ‘Do come over here, Miss Anderson,’ she sung out, kind of gasping for breath. I didn’t stop for anythin’. I put over as fast as I could, and when I got there, there was Luella laughin’ and cryin’ all together, and Aunt Abby trying to hush her, and all the time she herself was white as a sheet and shakin’ so she could hardly stand. ‘For the land sakes, Mrs. Mixter,’ says I, ‘you look worse than she does. You ain’t fit to be up out of your bed.’

“‘Oh, there ain’t anythin’ the matter with me,’ says she. Then she went on talkin’ to Luella. ‘There, there, don’t, don’t, poor little lamb,’ says she. ‘Aunt Abby is here. She ain’t goin’ away and leave you. Don’t, poor little lamb.’

“‘Do leave her with me, Mrs. Mixter, and you get back to bed,’ says I, for Aunt Abby had been layin’ down considerable lately, though somehow she contrived to do the work.

“‘I’m well enough,’ says she. ‘Don’t you think she had better have the doctor, Miss Anderson?’

“‘The doctor,’ says I, ‘I think YOU had better have the doctor. I think you need him much worse than some folks I could mention.’ And I looked right straight at Luella Miller laughin’ and cryin’ and goin’ on as if she was the centre of all creation. All the time she was actin’ so—seemed as if she was too sick to sense anythin’—she was keepin’ a sharp lookout as to how we took it out of the corner of one eye. I see her. You could never cheat me about Luella Miller. Finally I got real mad and I run home and I got a bottle of valerian I had, and I poured some boilin’ hot water on a handful of catnip, and I mixed up that catnip tea with most half a wineglass of valerian, and I went with it over to Luella’s. I marched right up to Luella, a-holdin’ out of that cup, all smokin’. ‘Now,’ says I, ‘Luella Miller, ‘YOU SWALLER THIS!’

“‘What is—what is it, oh, what is it?’ she sort of screeches out. Then she goes off a-laughin’ enough to kill.

“‘Poor lamb, poor little lamb,’ says Aunt Abby, standin’ over her, all kind of tottery, and tryin’ to bathe her head with camphor.

“‘YOU SWALLER THIS RIGHT DOWN,’ says I. And I didn’t waste any ceremony. I just took hold of Luella Miller’s chin and I tipped her head back, and I caught her mouth open with laughin’, and I clapped that cup to her lips, and I fairly hollered at her: ‘Swaller, swaller, swaller!’ and she gulped it right down. She had to, and I guess it did her good. Anyhow, she stopped cryin’ and laughin’ and let me put her to bed, and she went to sleep like a baby inside of half an hour. That was more than poor Aunt Abby did. She lay awake all that night and I stayed with her, though she tried not to have me; said she wa’n’t sick enough for watchers. But I stayed, and I made some good cornmeal gruel and I fed her a teaspoon every little while all night long. It seemed to me as if she was jest dyin’ from bein’ all wore out. In the mornin’ as soon as it was light I run over to the Bisbees and sent Johnny Bisbee for the doctor. I told him to tell the doctor to hurry, and he come pretty quick. Poor Aunt Abby didn’t seem to know much of anythin’ when he got there. You couldn’t hardly tell she breathed, she was so used up. When the doctor had gone, Luella came into the room lookin’ like a baby in her ruffled nightgown. I can see her now. Her eyes were as blue and her face all pink and white like a blossom, and she looked at Aunt Abby in the bed sort of innocent and surprised. ‘Why,’ says she, ‘Aunt Abby ain’t got up yet?’

“‘No, she ain’t,’ says I, pretty short.

“‘I thought I didn’t smell the coffee,’ says Luella.

“‘Coffee,’ says I. ‘I guess if you have coffee this mornin’ you’ll make it yourself.’

“‘I never made the coffee in all my life,’ says she, dreadful astonished. ‘Erastus always made the coffee as long as he lived, and then Lily she made it, and then Aunt Abby made it. I don’t believe I CAN make the coffee, Miss Anderson.’

“‘You can make it or go without, jest as you please,’ says I.

“‘Ain’t Aunt Abby goin’ to get up?’ says she.

“‘I guess she won’t get up,’ says I, ‘sick as she is.’ I was gettin’ madder and madder. There was somethin’ about that little pink-and-white thing standin’ there and talkin’ about coffee, when she had killed so many better folks than she was, and had jest killed another, that made me feel ‘most as if I wished somebody would up and kill her before she had a chance to do any more harm.

“‘Is Aunt Abby sick?’ says Luella, as if she was sort of aggrieved and injured.

“‘Yes,’ says I, ‘she’s sick, and she’s goin’ to die, and then you’ll be left alone, and you’ll have to do for yourself and wait on yourself, or do without things.’ I don’t know but I was sort of hard, but it was the truth, and if I was any harder than Luella Miller had been I’ll give up. I ain’t never been sorry that I said it. Well, Luella, she up and had hysterics again at that, and I jest let her have ’em. All I did was to bundle her into the room on the other side of the entry where Aunt Abby couldn’t hear her, if she wa’n’t past it—I don’t know but she was—and set her down hard in a chair and told her not to come back into the other room, and she minded. She had her hysterics in there till she got tired. When she found out that nobody was comin’ to coddle her and do for her she stopped. At least I suppose she did. I had all I could do with poor Aunt Abby tryin’ to keep the breath of life in her. The doctor had told me that she was dreadful low, and give me some very strong medicine to give to her in drops real often, and told me real particular about the nourishment. Well, I did as he told me real faithful till she wa’n’t able to swaller any longer. Then I had her daughter sent for. I had begun to realize that she wouldn’t last any time at all. I hadn’t realized it before, though I spoke to Luella the way I did. The doctor he came, and Mrs. Sam Abbot, but when she got there it was too late; her mother was dead. Aunt Abby’s daughter just give one look at her mother layin’ there, then she turned sort of sharp and sudden and looked at me.

“‘Where is she?’ says she, and I knew she meant Luella.

“‘She’s out in the kitchen,’ says I. ‘She’s too nervous to see folks die. She’s afraid it will make her sick.’

“The Doctor he speaks up then. He was a young man. Old Doctor Park had died the year before, and this was a young fellow just out of college. ‘Mrs. Miller is not strong,’ says he, kind of severe, ‘and she is quite right in not agitating herself.’

“‘You are another, young man; she’s got her pretty claw on you,’ thinks I, but I didn’t say anythin’ to him. I just said over to Mrs. Sam Abbot that Luella was in the kitchen, and Mrs. Sam Abbot she went out there, and I went, too, and I never heard anythin’ like the way she talked to Luella Miller. I felt pretty hard to Luella myself, but this was more than I ever would have dared to say. Luella she was too scared to go into hysterics. She jest flopped. She seemed to jest shrink away to nothin’ in that kitchen chair, with Mrs. Sam Abbot standin’ over her and talkin’ and tellin’ her the truth. I guess the truth was most too much for her and no mistake, because Luella presently actually did faint away, and there wa’n’t any sham about it, the way I always suspected there was about them hysterics. She fainted dead away and we had to lay her flat on the floor, and the Doctor he came runnin’ out and he said somethin’ about a weak heart dreadful fierce to Mrs. Sam Abbot, but she wa’n’t a mite scared. She faced him jest as white as even Luella was layin’ there lookin’ like death and the Doctor feelin’ of her pulse.

“‘Weak heart,’ says she, ‘weak heart; weak fiddlesticks! There ain’t nothin’ weak about that woman. She’s got strength enough to hang onto other folks till she kills ’em. Weak? It was my poor mother that was weak: this woman killed her as sure as if she had taken a knife to her.’

“But the Doctor he didn’t pay much attention. He was bendin’ over Luella layin’ there with her yellow hair all streamin’ and her pretty pink-and-white face all pale, and her blue eyes like stars gone out, and he was holdin’ onto her hand and smoothin’ her forehead, and tellin’ me to get the brandy in Aunt Abby’s room, and I was sure as I wanted to be that Luella had got somebody else to hang onto, now Aunt Abby was gone, and I thought of poor Erastus Miller, and I sort of pitied the poor young Doctor, led away by a pretty face, and I made up my mind I’d see what I could do.

“I waited till Aunt Abby had been dead and buried about a month, and the Doctor was goin’ to see Luella steady and folks were beginnin’ to talk; then one evenin’, when I knew the Doctor had been called out of town and wouldn’t be round, I went over to Luella’s. I found her all dressed up in a blue muslin with white polka dots on it, and her hair curled jest as pretty, and there wa’n’t a young girl in the place could compare with her. There was somethin’ about Luella Miller seemed to draw the heart right out of you, but she didn’t draw it out of ME. She was settin’ rocking in the chair by her sittin’-room window, and Maria Brown had gone home. Maria Brown had been in to help her, or rather to do the work, for Luella wa’n’t helped when she didn’t do anythin’. Maria Brown was real capable and she didn’t have any ties; she wa’n’t married, and lived alone, so she’d offered. I couldn’t see why she should do the work any more than Luella; she wa’n’t any too strong; but she seemed to think she could and Luella seemed to think so, too, so she went over and did all the work—washed, and ironed, and baked, while Luella sat and rocked. Maria didn’t live long afterward. She began to fade away just the same fashion the others had. Well, she was warned, but she acted real mad when folks said anythin’: said Luella was a poor, abused woman, too delicate to help herself, and they’d ought to be ashamed, and if she died helpin’ them that couldn’t help themselves she would—and she did.

“‘I s’pose Maria has gone home,’ says I to Luella, when I had gone in and sat down opposite her.

“‘Yes, Maria went half an hour ago, after she had got supper and washed the dishes,’ says Luella, in her pretty way.

“‘I suppose she has got a lot of work to do in her own house to-night,’ says I, kind of bitter, but that was all thrown away on Luella Miller. It seemed to her right that other folks that wa’n’t any better able than she was herself should wait on her, and she couldn’t get it through her head that anybody should think it WA’N’T right.

“‘Yes,’ says Luella, real sweet and pretty, ‘yes, she said she had to do her washin’ to-night. She has let it go for a fortnight along of comin’ over here.’

“‘Why don’t she stay home and do her washin’ instead of comin’ over here and doin’ YOUR work, when you are just as well able, and enough sight more so, than she is to do it?’ says I.

“Then Luella she looked at me like a baby who has a rattle shook at it. She sort of laughed as innocent as you please. ‘Oh, I can’t do the work myself, Miss Anderson,’ says she. ‘I never did. Maria HAS to do it.’

“Then I spoke out: ‘Has to do it I’ says I. ‘Has to do it!’ She don’t have to do it, either. Maria Brown has her own home and enough to live on. She ain’t beholden to you to come over here and slave for you and kill herself.’

“Luella she jest set and stared at me for all the world like a doll-baby that was so abused that it was comin’ to life.

“‘Yes,’ says I, ‘she’s killin’ herself. She’s goin’ to die just the way Erastus did, and Lily, and your Aunt Abby. You’re killin’ her jest as you did them. I don’t know what there is about you, but you seem to bring a curse,’ says I. ‘You kill everybody that is fool enough to care anythin’ about you and do for you.’

“She stared at me and she was pretty pale.

“‘And Maria ain’t the only one you’re goin’ to kill,’ says I. ‘You’re goin’ to kill Doctor Malcom before you’re done with him.’

“Then a red colour came flamin’ all over her face. ‘I ain’t goin’ to kill him, either,’ says she, and she begun to cry.

“‘Yes, you BE!’ says I. Then I spoke as I had never spoke before. You see, I felt it on account of Erastus. I told her that she hadn’t any business to think of another man after she’d been married to one that had died for her: that she was a dreadful woman; and she was, that’s true enough, but sometimes I have wondered lately if she knew it—if she wa’n’t like a baby with scissors in its hand cuttin’ everybody without knowin’ what it was doin’.

“Luella she kept gettin’ paler and paler, and she never took her eyes off my face. There was somethin’ awful about the way she looked at me and never spoke one word. After awhile I quit talkin’ and I went home. I watched that night, but her lamp went out before nine o’clock, and when Doctor Malcom came drivin’ past and sort of slowed up he see there wa’n’t any light and he drove along. I saw her sort of shy out of meetin’ the next Sunday, too, so he shouldn’t go home with her, and I begun to think mebbe she did have some conscience after all. It was only a week after that that Maria Brown died—sort of sudden at the last, though everybody had seen it was comin’. Well, then there was a good deal of feelin’ and pretty dark whispers. Folks said the days of witchcraft had come again, and they were pretty shy of Luella. She acted sort of offish to the Doctor and he didn’t go there, and there wa’n’t anybody to do anythin’ for her. I don’t know how she DID get along. I wouldn’t go in there and offer to help her—not because I was afraid of dyin’ like the rest, but I thought she was just as well able to do her own work as I was to do it for her, and I thought it was about time that she did it and stopped killin’ other folks. But it wa’n’t very long before folks began to say that Luella herself was goin’ into a decline jest the way her husband, and Lily, and Aunt Abby and the others had, and I saw myself that she looked pretty bad. I used to see her goin’ past from the store with a bundle as if she could hardly crawl, but I remembered how Erastus used to wait and ‘tend when he couldn’t hardly put one foot before the other, and I didn’t go out to help her.

“But at last one afternoon I saw the Doctor come drivin’ up like mad with his medicine chest, and Mrs. Babbit came in after supper and said that Luella was real sick.

“‘I’d offer to go in and nurse her,’ says she, ‘but I’ve got my children to consider, and mebbe it ain’t true what they say, but it’s queer how many folks that have done for her have died.’

“I didn’t say anythin’, but I considered how she had been Erastus’s wife and how he had set his eyes by her, and I made up my mind to go in the next mornin’, unless she was better, and see what I could do; but the next mornin’ I see her at the window, and pretty soon she came steppin’ out as spry as you please, and a little while afterward Mrs. Babbit came in and told me that the Doctor had got a girl from out of town, a Sarah Jones, to come there, and she said she was pretty sure that the Doctor was goin’ to marry Luella.

“I saw him kiss her in the door that night myself, and I knew it was true. The woman came that afternoon, and the way she flew around was a caution. I don’t believe Luella had swept since Maria died. She swept and dusted, and washed and ironed; wet clothes and dusters and carpets were flyin’ over there all day, and every time Luella set her foot out when the Doctor wa’n’t there there was that Sarah Jones helpin’ of her up and down the steps, as if she hadn’t learned to walk.

“Well, everybody knew that Luella and the Doctor were goin’ to be married, but it wa’n’t long before they began to talk about his lookin’ so poorly, jest as they had about the others; and they talked about Sarah Jones, too.

“Well, the Doctor did die, and he wanted to be married first, so as to leave what little he had to Luella, but he died before the minister could get there, and Sarah Jones died a week afterward.

“Well, that wound up everything for Luella Miller. Not another soul in the whole town would lift a finger for her. There got to be a sort of panic. Then she began to droop in good earnest. She used to have to go to the store herself, for Mrs. Babbit was afraid to let Tommy go for her, and I’ve seen her goin’ past and stoppin’ every two or three steps to rest. Well, I stood it as long as I could, but one day I see her comin’ with her arms full and stoppin’ to lean against the Babbit fence, and I run out and took her bundles and carried them to her house. Then I went home and never spoke one word to her though she called after me dreadful kind of pitiful. Well, that night I was taken sick with a chill, and I was sick as I wanted to be for two weeks. Mrs. Babbit had seen me run out to help Luella and she came in and told me I was goin’ to die on account of it. I didn’t know whether I was or not, but I considered I had done right by Erastus’s wife.

“That last two weeks Luella she had a dreadful hard time, I guess. She was pretty sick, and as near as I could make out nobody dared go near her. I don’t know as she was really needin’ anythin’ very much, for there was enough to eat in her house and it was warm weather, and she made out to cook a little flour gruel every day, I know, but I guess she had a hard time, she that had been so petted and done for all her life.

“When I got so I could go out, I went over there one morning. Mrs. Babbit had just come in to say she hadn’t seen any smoke and she didn’t know but it was somebody’s duty to go in, but she couldn’t help thinkin’ of her children, and I got right up, though I hadn’t been out of the house for two weeks, and I went in there, and Luella she was layin’ on the bed, and she was dyin’.

“She lasted all that day and into the night. But I sat there after the new doctor had gone away. Nobody else dared to go there. It was about midnight that I left her for a minute to run home and get some medicine I had been takin’, for I begun to feel rather bad.

“It was a full moon that night, and just as I started out of my door to cross the street back to Luella’s, I stopped short, for I saw something.”

Lydia Anderson at this juncture always said with a certain defiance that she did not expect to be believed, and then proceeded in a hushed voice:

“I saw what I saw, and I know I saw it, and I will swear on my death bed that I saw it. I saw Luella Miller and Erastus Miller, and Lily, and Aunt Abby, and Maria, and the Doctor, and Sarah, all goin’ out of her door, and all but Luella shone white in the moonlight, and they were all helpin’ her along till she seemed to fairly fly in the midst of them. Then it all disappeared. I stood a minute with my heart poundin’, then I went over there. I thought of goin’ for Mrs. Babbit, but I thought she’d be afraid. So I went alone, though I knew what had happened. Luella was layin’ real peaceful, dead on her bed.”

This was the story that the old woman, Lydia Anderson, told, but the sequel was told by the people who survived her, and this is the tale which has become folklore in the village.

Lydia Anderson died when she was eighty-seven. She had continued wonderfully hale and hearty for one of her years until about two weeks before her death.

One bright moonlight evening she was sitting beside a window in her parlour when she made a sudden exclamation, and was out of the house and across the street before the neighbour who was taking care of her could stop her. She followed as fast as possible and found Lydia Anderson stretched on the ground before the door of Luella Miller’s deserted house, and she was quite dead.

The next night there was a red gleam of fire athwart the moonlight and the old house of Luella Miller was burned to the ground. Nothing is now left of it except a few old cellar stones and a lilac bush, and in summer a helpless trail of morning glories among the weeds, which might be considered emblematic of Luella herself.

The post PseudoPod 529: Luella Miller appeared first on PseudoPod.

Feb 10 2017

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Rank #14: PseudoPod 500: A Bit Of The Dark World

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“A Bit Of The Dark World” originally appeared in Fantastic Stories of Imagination, February 1962. It is presented here as the 7th part of our 10 episode “A CENTURY OF HORROR” celebration – with 9 other episodes made available only to subscribers!

A Bit Of The Dark World

by Fritz Leiber

… and then one of the last rays of the sun must have struck a mirror-surface in the summit-crag, perhaps an outcropping of quartz, for it struck back at me like a golden rapier, making me blink, and then for an instant the beam was glitteringly black and I thought I saw (though nothing as clearly as I’d seen the black all-knowing spider-centipede on the pinnacle) a black shape — black with the queer churning blackness you see only at night with your eyes dosed. The shape coiled rapidly down the crag, into the cavern gullies and around the rocks and finally and utterly into the undergrowth above the fold and disappeared.

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Jul 24 2016

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Rank #15: PseudoPod 531: Gleed

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PseudoPod 531: Gleed is a PseudoPod original.

Gleed

by Jason Rush

The first thing I notice is that goddamn old-timey music, Suwanee River or some shit.

I smell stale peanuts and beer. Also coal and dirt, but that’s always there. As much my fault as anyone’s.

I’m already seated. My head sags, and my hands rest on a small, oak table. Car keys and cell phone in front of me.

My head pounds.

“Guys?” Danny says across from me. My brow creases as I look up. He, Johnson and Huck sit around the table. My crew. Why are their hardhats still on? Dirty work clothes. Smudges of grime on their faces. And how the fuck did we get here?

Johnson’s jaw hangs slack, and a bead of spit gathers in the corner of his mouth. He stares down at the table like he doesn’t know we’re here. Like he doesn’t know he’s here.

A trace of blood crusts Huck’s cheek below his ear.

“Guys,” Danny says again. “Where are we?” He’s the youngest–still a kid, really–and he looks like he’s gonna cry.

“The bar,” I say, and because giving Danny shit is what we do, I mumble, “Dumbass.”

“But…” Danny shakes his head. He looks to Huck, cuz Huck’s the one that doesn’t treat him like a kid, but Huck ain’t moving. Head down. Eyes blank. No one home. “I don’t remember coming here.”

There’s movement over my shoulder as the waitress walks up. Peggy. I know her. She’s always on the night shift. She ought to feel familiar, but she doesn’t. Nothing does.

She taps a pencil against her order pad, head cocked so graying hair spills over one shoulder. “Well?” she says, impatient, like she’s asked for our order already. Tap tap tap with the pencil.

I run a hand over my face, and my beard bristles. I look back at my crew. Johnson lifts his head like he’s just waking up, eyes filled with confusion. Shaggy gray hair pokes out under his hard hat. His crow’s feet flex as he squints. He wipes the bead of spit with the back of his hand.

I want him to take lead, tell me what’s going on, but he looks dazed, like a cartoon character that got whacked in the head.

Turning back to Peggy, I say, “The usual.” Anything to get rid of her.

She raises an eyebrow, then shrugs. “Okay, sugar.” She turns, but not before I see her eyes roll. Then she’s gone, back to the kitchen.

Old Mike stands at the bar, wiping the counter. The wall behind him is covered in antique crap. Six shooters and pickaxes and horseshoes. There’s a faded photo of Doc Holliday next to what Old Mike says is a bullet hole, shot by Doc himself when Mike’s great grandfather ran the joint. Or great great grandfather. Whatever.

A flatscreen TV flashes scenes of Butch and Sundance getting ready to jump, and the player piano in the corner hammers away on its own. Tourist bullshit. I hate this place. Hate this town.

Johnson looks around, then turns to me, face tight. “We were at work.” His voice is like a bucket of gravel. “When did we get here?”

A stab of cold pricks my gut. I’ve never seen Johnson lost before.

I shake my head. Last thing I remember is being underground with the drone of the continuous miner, blades churning, rock crumbling. The thunk of a six-foot bolt driven into the ceiling. The smell of dust and rock and coal.

(A dull, red light. Someone screaming.)

Then here. Looking at my hands. Peggy tapping her pencil.

Beside me, Huck groans and looks up. His eyes are jerky, like he’s concussed. They flit from Johnson to me to Danny. Back to Johnson. He opens his mouth, starts to say something, but cuts short with a gasp.

His head snaps back, and we all flinch at the movement. His eyes go wide. He clamps his hands to the side of his head. “Oh Jesus,” he says. I notice the crusted blood under his ear again. “Jesus, no.” His voice is higher. Shrill. Eyes squeezed shut, gripping his head like he’s holding it together. “Something’s coming.”

Then he screams.

And that’s when it moves, like a worm in my ear. It slithers, squirms, wraps the ear canal. Slime and ooze. I hear it squish, echoing in the dark of my mind. And, oh God, it speaks, whispers, Something’s coming. This is the end.

I jerk to my feet, and my chair topples. I clutch my head in my hands. “Get it out!” I scream. “Christ, get it out!” My heel catches, and I plummet, crashing to the floor. Something’s coming. I claw at my head, thrashing, flailing. Something’s coming. This is the end.

It stops.

Silence.

The worm is still. Can’t feel it. Can’t hear it.

I’m panting, hyperventilating, can’t fill my lungs.

The table behind me rocks on its side. I must’ve knocked it over when I fell. Huck’s still seated, eyes wide, gripping our table like he could dig his nails into it. He’s shaking. Johnson and Danny are on their feet, staring, first at me, then Huck, then back. Peggy and Old Mike gawk by the bar. Peggy has our pitcher of beer and four glasses, but she doesn’t bring them, just stands there, mouth open.

Huck is mumbling, “Jesus” and “Oh Jesus” and “Jesus fuck.” He buries his head in his arms and sobs.

“What the hell,” Danny says, a quiver in his voice.

Johnson is the first to move. He rounds the table and squats beside me. “You hurt?” I shake my head, and he says, “Can you get up?” Hooking a hand under my armpit, he lifts. My legs are jelly. I wobble, but he keeps me steady. At first I think he’ll set me back at the table, but he looks across the empty room at Peggy and Old Mike and says to me, “Let’s go.” He scoops up my keys and phone and says to Danny, “Get Huck and let’s go.”

I hear Peggy mutter something about “crazy”, and Old Mike grunts his agreement.

Then we’re outside. The light from the bar and a single streetlight across the lot push back at the dark. It smells like snow. I’m panting, and my breath clouds the air in front of me. The gravel parking lot crunches under my feet.

“What the fuck happened in there?” Johnson says.

I shake my head. No words could show him, make him see.

Behind me, Huck says, “It’s coming,” over and over, blubbering nonsense, “Christ” and “Jesus” and I want him to shut up, just shut the fuck up.

Danny tells him, “It’s okay, I got ya,” but his voice doesn’t match the words. It’s shaky, scared, like a kid that just got whupped.

Seeing my truck, I pull my arm from Johnson’s grip, but Johnson grabs me and yanks me back. “The fuck you think you’re going?”

“My truck.”

“You think you’re driving?” He shakes his head and drags me to his pickup. The doors unlock with a beep-beep, and I jump at the sound. Johnson tugs the passenger side open and shoves me in, then jerks the seatbelt over my shoulder. Danny and Huck pile into the bucket seats in the back.

“It’s gonna be okay,” Danny says, and I hear the pat-pat-pat of his hand on Huck’s shoulder.

“It’s not,” Huck says, mumbles, sobs. “It’s not gonna be okay, it’s fucked, it’s all fucked.”

I can’t get a good picture of what’s going on around me. My vision is mackled. Everything’s jerky, like shitty cellphone video. “Where are we going?” My voice feels thick.

“Hospital,” Johnson says, sliding into the driver’s seat and jamming the keys in the ignition.

“I’m fine.” I close my eyes to stop from puking.

“You ain’t fine.” Johnson peers over his shoulder into the back seat. “Huck neither. We’re going to the hospital.”

I feel something warm and wet against my earlobe. I wipe at it, and my fingers come away with blood.

“What the hell happened, man?” Danny says behind us. I crane my neck to see him. His face is white–a ghost under the glare of the streetlight. He shakes his head. “I mean, what the hell?”

Fucking kid.

The engine cranks and shudders to a start. The dashboard clock blinks, then settles on 12:03 AM. End of our shift was four hours ago. Where the fuck have we been?

As the truck backs up, I put my face in my hands, trying to stop the world from spinning. We pause at the edge of the parking lot as one lonely car passes. Johnson pulls out. He glances at me but doesn’t say anything. He’s not a talker.

Huck has settled down a bit. Silence in the back seat. Just the hum of the engine. Hum of the road.

Then Danny screams.

Johnson flinches at the sound, jerking the wheel. Tires screech. My head thumps against the window. I thought I had my hardhat on, but it must’ve come off back at the bar.

With another jerk, the truck steadies.

Behind me, Danny screams and squeals. His shrill voice drills in my head, and I want to die.

I want to tell him to be a man, but the swerving has my stomach all fucked, and I think if I open my mouth I’ll vomit.

Then he quiets. I hear him sob, talking, yammering under his breath, voice choked with sorrow. “Something’s coming,” he says. “I can feel it rising.”

“You’re okay,” Huck says. “I’m here. I gotcha.”

The cold window presses against my forehead. My eyes are closed. I pry them open and see the reflectors on the road zip past us. The motion is unsettling, and I close my eyes again.

“Johnson,” I say.

He grunts. His response to most shit, but you get to know the tones, and this grunt says, Yeah, what?

“You shouldn’t be driving.”

He grunts again, and this one I take to mean, Shut the fuck up.

“You’ll be next,” I say, “and you shouldn’t be driving.”

“Well the hospital ain’t comin’ to us.”

The headlights make two overlapping circles on the road ahead of us, and the center line flashes through them, blip, blip, blip. I close my eyes. “Call a fucking ambulance,” I mutter.

He grunts. Shut the fuck up again.

Ambulance takes too long, he’s thinking. Maybe an hour, out here in the boondocks. He thinks he can get us there faster, but he can’t. He won’t. We won’t make it.

“I felt it,” Danny says behind me, voice shaking. “Moving in my ear. A fucking worm. Something. What’s happening to us?”

“I know,” Huck says.

“I don’t want to die.”

“We’re gonna be okay.”

I want to tell Huck to stop coddling that goddam kid. Time for him to man up. But then I see the glow of lights over the next ridge.

“No,” I say, lifting my head to look at Johnson. “Not this way.”

Johnson doesn’t answer, but if he did, he’d say this is the way to the hospital, and tell me to shut up.

“Not this way, man. Stop. Don’t go this way.”

The road snakes, and we round the last curve before the mine. The lights are blinding after the dark of the highway. I squint and hold a hand up to shield my eyes. The giant sign by the road reads, “Gleed Industries”.

(A dull, red light. Someone screaming.)

“No!” I reach for the wheel, don’t know what for, what I’m expecting to do. Jack it to the side? Swerve us off the road? Anything but pass the fucking mine. But before my hand gets there, Johnson lets go. His eyes bug out. He slams his hands to the sides of his head and screams.

We careen off the asphalt to the dirt shoulder. The truck lurches, throwing me against the seatbelt strap. Huck is shouting behind me. Danny cries out. The world outside the windshield is a blur. The “Gleed Industries” sign races toward us. Johnson grips his head and screeches. I grab the wheel and crank, and gravel spins under the wheels as the truck fishtails, slides sideways, the sign growing bigger and bigger in Johnson’s window. I grit my teeth, squeeze my eyes shut and brace.

Slam!

The side of the truck crumples. My head whips to the left. The seatbelt cuts a line across my shoulder. Johnson’s skull hits the side window with a crack. Shattered glass sprays my face. The truck rocks. Glass tinkles. Danny and Huck pant and gasp in the back.

Then silence.

I taste blood.

My shoulder hurts where the seatbelt dug in.

I open my eyes a crack. I’m twisted to the side, hung up by the seatbelt. My neck hurts. My head lolls. I sit up, and pain flares in my side as a rib shifts. Groaning, I slump back into the harness.

No one says anything. Are they in shock? Unconscious? I’ll have to sit up to see, but I’m scared of that rib shifting again.

I close my eyes and take a breath. When I’m relaxed, I put a hand on the seat and push, straightening my body. My rib aches, but I take it slow and manage to get all the way up.

Behind me, Danny says, “It’s time,” with the voice of a man being walked to the noose.

Johnson leans against the crumpled door. His face is splattered with blood. Eyes closed. I nudge him. “Johnson?”

Danny says “oh God” over and over behind me.

“Hey, Johnson,” I say, and nudge him again.

Johnson’s eyes snap open. “It’s time.” And there’s nothing in his expression, like Johnson’s gone, and there’s a puppeteer with a hand up his ass. He grabs the handle of his door and pushes, but it’s jammed against the “Gleed” sign. The door thunks, and glass tinkles. He pushes again. And again.

“Okay,” I say. “This way, let’s get out my side, man.”

He keeps pushing.

“Johnson.” I put a hand on his shoulder.

His head whips to face me, and Jesus Christ, there really is nothing behind those eyes.

“It’s time,” he says.

In the back, Danny says, “It’s here.”

And Huck says, “This is the end.”

The worm moves again, slithers, squirms, the squish squish echoing in my ear, in the darkness inside me, and I scream, but my mouth doesn’t move, and there’s no sound, and I grab my head, but my hands lay still at my sides. My muscles flex, but they don’t. I convulse, thrash, bash my head against the window, but nothing happens. My body doesn’t respond. All the movement is in my mind. Impulses that are never sent. My body is relaxed. Quiet. Seated. Still.

“It’s time,” I say, and it’s my voice, my mouth moving, but it isn’t me speaking, it’s the worm, and oh God, it whispers in my head, Something’s coming, and my mouth moves again, and says, “It’s here.”

My mind goes black with panic. Can’t move, can’t scream. The worm slithers and whispers, and through my terror, I feel my hand shift. It slips the seatbelt off and reaches for the door, pushes it open. My legs slide out. The cracked rib pops in my side. I want to double over from the pain. Want to scream. Collapse. But I step out of the truck and walk.

Behind me, the others crawl out, and I hear their footsteps following me across the lot.

“Something’s coming,” I say.

“Rising,” Johnson says.

“Coming,” Danny says.

“It’s here,” Huck says.

No no no, I scream in my head, trying to stop from speaking again, to stop walking, to fall to the ground in a ball, stop the pain in my side, stop the slither in my ear, in my head, but all I do is say, “This is the end,” and march through the lot with my crew.

There’s no one else in the parking area, but there are cars, and I hear the noises of the night shift operations. The buzz of the conveyor belt, the white noise of the coal-washing plant. Our bodies wind through the vehicles, feet shuffling over gravel, until we stop in front of the elevator. It stands alone at the edge of the lot, away from the buildings, away from the man-trip vehicles at the main entrance. The fastest way in. Right above the deepest part of the mine. Right above where we were digging yesterday.

(A dull, red light. Someone screaming.)

I don’t want to go back, can’t go back, won’t go back, and the worm whispers, psss psss psss. 

Johnson hits the button, saying, “This is it.”

And I say, “It’s coming.”

The elevator dings and slides open.

No no no no.

My feet step for the door. I will my hand to move, and finally, my body reacts. Grabbing the side of the cage, I push back, stumble, trip, fall to my ass, and a cloud of dust sprays up around me.

The worm shifts, squish squish in my ear, tightening, and my body belongs to it again. I’m sitting on the ground, trying to flail and scramble away and run, but instead I stand, my bad rib grinding in my side, but I can’t cry out, can’t scream, can’t fight it as I follow the others into the elevator and the doors slide shut behind me.

Gears whine as we descend. My breath rasps. My heart pounds.

No one speaks. We stand and sway as the elevator drops through its shaft, down into the darkness that’s rising around us. My eyes flit left and right, searching for a way out, a way to move, hit the emergency stop button, smash the panel, pry the doors open, jump, run, but we just stand and sway and descend into the pit.

“This is the end,” Huck says, and the elevator slows to a stop.

The door slides open.

The room is a grid, giant paths we’ve dug out, with pillars left untouched to support the ceiling. We exit the elevator (no no no), rounding the first pillar, and the cavern opens up a hundred yards in front of us. At the end, the continuous miner sits dormant, engine silent, rotors still. Beyond it, a crack gapes along the wall, a couple feet wide, and a dull, red light glows through.

I remember now. Remember the wall crumbling, Johnson killing the engine. I remember peering through the fissure, the walls flush with red light, thinking, Why didn’t we know this was here?

Huck screaming behind me.

Then nothing. Peggy tapping her pencil.

I don’t want to go back. Can’t go back. The red gets brighter as we march through the mine. I feel its heat on my face. Sweat trickles down my forehead, gets in my eye, but I can’t wipe it away, can’t move anything but my feet, marching, marching forward.

I hear distant operations–machinery, engines–but it’s quiet in this sector. The night crew isn’t here. No sign of them.

As we approach, I hear footsteps echoing down one of the corridors to the right, and someone rounds the corner next to the miner.

“Sigmund?” he shouts, and his voice echoes in the dark acoustics. I recognize him but don’t know his name. Some night-crew guy I’ve seen in passing. The name he’s calling, though, Sigmund, that’s the foreman of the crew that should be here, working this area.

“Sigmund?” he says again. “Ops has been calling. Where the fuck are you guys?”

Hope sparks in my chest. He can save us. Stop this. Call the police. The ambulance. The army. I try to scream for help, but the worm slithers and tightens, and I’m lost. I groan inside, but on the outside I’m calm, marching forward.

The night-crew guy rounds the edge of the continuous miner and draws up short. I hear him gasp as he sees the fissure. The dull, red light. He leans forward and mutters, “What the fuck?”

I want to tell him to run. To save himself.

We’re almost to him. He hears our footsteps behind him and spins. He squints, eyes jumping from Johnson, to Huck, to me, to Danny. He shakes his head. “Johnson?” He checks his watch. “The fuck are you guys doing here?”

“Something’s coming,” Johnson says.

A shadow passes over the guy’s neck. A thin, dark line, slithering upward, and I want to reach out, grab it, stop it, but I’m too far, and I can’t move anyway, I just march forward, my body focused on the fissure.

“What the–” the guy says, and swats at his neck, but too late, and the shadow slides across his earlobe and disappears inside him. “No.” He grabs his ear. “No!” And then it’s all screams. Pleas to God, to Jesus, to us, for anyone to get it out and make it stop.

His knees drop out from under him, and he slams to the rock floor. He convulses, hands gripping his head, back arched, eyes squeezed shut, kicking and howling, all nonsense now, no words, just unintelligible screeches.

We walk past him. Our bodies are calm, but inside, I want to run, charge the wall, bash my head into the rock. Anything to stop this placid march.

We pass the continuous miner. I think I see blood pooling at the foot of the driver’s side door, but I can’t turn my head to look.

Behind us, the screams silence. I hear the man shuffle to his feet, suddenly calm and quiet. “Something’s coming,” he whispers, and his footsteps tap down the passageway toward the elevator.

He’ll move on autopilot, go wherever he would go–the bar, home, somewhere–until the worm in his ear decides it has control. Decides it’s time and brings him back.

We’re stopped in front of the fissure now. Not close enough to see in, but I feel the heat. It pushes at me like a wall. Smothers me. My eyes water. Sweat drips down my brow.

Huck steps forward. He stands for a second with his back to us, silhouetted against the red opening in the rock. Squatting, he shoves at the rubble. I hear the loose rocks shift and thunk, echoing through the cavern. My heart pounds. I know what he’s looking for, what he wants, what the worm in his head wants. I don’t know how, but I know, I see it in my mind before Huck stands and turns to face us, an eight-inch knife in his hand.

I shake my head, but it doesn’t move. I tell him to drop it, to run, but no sound comes out.

The blade is old. Ancient. Iron, with dents and imperfections from where it was hammered on a forge. It’s been waiting for us. For so long, it can’t be measured in time. Forever. Strange characters are etched across the blade, no language I’ve ever seen, but somehow I know what it says, and I say it too, “This is the end.”

Huck backs to the edge of the crack in the wall, still facing us. I see the fear in his eyes now, the only thing that tells me he’s still there, deep inside that body. Red glows around him on all sides. Through the fissure, there is emptiness. The ground drops away behind him. I can’t see the far wall. Huck steps back. His heel hangs over the brink. He raises the knife. A tear spills down his cheek as he presses the blade against his throat.

No no no, I think, but I can’t move, can’t stop it, and Huck slices.

His throat opens beneath the blade, red pouring down his neck and chest. He gags. The knife drops from his grip and clatters to the stone floor. Huck’s eyes roll back in his head. He teeters, then falls through the gap, into the red abyss.

I want to reach for him, but I can’t, and he’s gone.

I scream, but there’s no sound and my mouth doesn’t move, it’s just my voice in my head, howling and howling into the silence.

The worm wraps around my ear canal and squeezes. My feet move, one step, two, toward the dull, red light, and oh God, I want to stop, but it moves me, marches me forward.

I bend and take up the bloody knife.

“It’s rising,” I say.

“This is the end,” Danny says.

I turn to face them. Please don’t let me die, don’t do this, don’t take me, I don’t want to die, I say, but it’s only in my mind. My jaw is set. My grip squeezes the hilt of the ancient blade. Huck’s blood slickens my fingers.

I raise the knife to my throat, touch it to skin. Oh God. I tense, will my arm to throw it, will my fingers to let it go. No! But the worm whispers, psss psss, and I slice.

Pain rips across my neck. Breath doesn’t come. It gurgles in my open throat. Warm blood washes down my chest.

My fingers release, and I hear the knife hit stone.

I stagger back one step. The edges of my vision tunnel.

Suddenly I’m free. I’m myself. No worm slithering in my ear, whispering, telling me what to do, driving me forward.

I grab my throat, put pressure on it, I can stop it, stop the bleeding, I can survive, if only Johnson or Danny can help, call someone, get me to the hospital, I can survive, I’m not dead, I’m not dead.

“No,” I say, the word drowning in a bubble of blood.

I teeter, fall, grab for the edge of the fissure, miss, and my leg gives. I plunge into the dull, red light, into the abyss.

An eye watches me fall. Watches from below. Rising. Coming. An eye that’s a mouth. It gapes, yawns, ready to swallow me, this is the end, the inferno pulsing heat beneath it, pushing it toward me, the beast, pushing it toward the fissure, toward the world, and I don’t want to die, I pinwheel, grapple for the walls, but there’s nothing, just the fall, and the dull, red light, and that eye that’s a mouth, waiting below to swallow me as it claws its way up.

This is the end.

The post PseudoPod 531: Gleed appeared first on PseudoPod.

Feb 24 2017

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Rank #16: PseudoPod 539: The Fear

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“The Fear” was first printed in Macabra: A Journey Through Australia’s Darkest Fears in 2010 and reprinted in the US in Year’s Best Horror 2010.

“Yes – imagine that film! Even though it may not end up the way you expect, visualize just how it might look and sound on the screen!”

The Fear

by Richard Harland

“It’s impossible to explain without visuals. You’d have to see the movie to know why it was so frightening. Think yourself lucky you never will.”

The post PseudoPod 539: The Fear appeared first on PseudoPod.

Apr 21 2017

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Rank #17: PseudoPod 492 Replay: The Fisher Queen & The Eugie Award

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“The Fisher Queen” was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2014.

Escape Artists would like to draw your attention to a fantastic event happening next week at DragonCon, the Eugie Foster Memorial Award for Short Fiction.

This annual award will be presented for the first time in 2016—for works published in 2015.The Eugie Award honors stories that are irreplaceable, that inspire, enlighten, and entertain. It will shine the spotlight on stories that are beautiful, thoughtful, and passionate. That change us and the field. The recipient will be a story that is unique and will become essential to speculative fiction readers.

The finalists for this award are:

“The Deepwater Bride” by Tamsin Muir
“Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong
“The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild” by Catherynne M. Valente
“Pocosin” by Ursula Vernon
“Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight” by Aliette De Bodard

To highlight how fantastic these authors are, we are re-running three stories on Escape Pod, PodCastle, and Pseudopod:

Escape Pod 408: Immersion by Aliette De Bodard
Podcastle 198: Urchins, While Swimming by Catherynne M. Valente
Pseudopod 492: The Fisher Queen by Alyssa Wong

Also make sure to check out Ursula Vernon’s story “Jackalope Wives” available to read for free at Mothership Zeta. And mark November on your calendar for an upcoming story by Tamsin Muir.


Pseudopod 492: The Fisher Queen

by Alyssa Wong

“The Fisher Queen” was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2014. It is available to read free online at fu-GEN.org. “The Fisher Queen” was on the shortlist for the 2014 Nebula along with Eugie Foster’s last story, “When It Ends, He Catches Her” which ran last year on Pseudopod. It has been translated into Chinese, French, and German. “The Fisher Queen” is set up in the fashion of traditional oral storytelling, where truth and myth blend together. However, it’s about the very real effects of societal, systematic violence against women.

Alyssa Wong is a Shirley Jackson-, and World Fantasy Award-nominated author, shark aficionado, and 2013 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. She made the shortlist for the 2015 Stoker Award and won the 2015 Nebula Award for “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” which you should go check out at Nightmare Magazine. Her work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, Uncanny Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and Black Static, among others. She is an MFA candidate at North Carolina State University and a member of the Manhattan-based writing group Altered Fluid, and can be found on Twitter @crashwong. Alyssa Wong has been deservedly shortlisted for the Joseph W. Campbell Award for New Writers this year, and “The Fisher Queen” is part of why she made it to the list.

Your narrator – Mae Heaney is originally from Manila, Philippines and currently lives in Melbourne, Australia with her Irish husband, 2 young children and Parmi the Chook. She is an IT professional who once briefly dabbled in theater, and loves to bake to tame the voices in her head. She is very successful in changing nappies under five minutes, but fails miserably in trying to read her toddler’s mind and in updating her blog celticpinaymom.blogspot.com.

Your guest host this week is Associate Editor Dagny Paul. Dagny is an 8th-grade English teacher who lives in New Orleans with her husband and four-year-old son. She has an unhealthy (but entertaining) obsession with comic books and horror movies.

****

MY MOTHER WAS A FISH. That’s why I can swim so well, according to my father, who is a plain fisherman with a fisherman’s plain logic, but uncanny flair for the dramatic. And while it’s true that I can cut through the water like a minnow, or a hand dipped over the edge of a speedboat, I personally think it’s because no one can grow up along the Mekong without learning two things: how to swim, and how to avoid the mermaids.

Mermaids, like my father’s favorite storytale version of my mother, are fish. They aren’t people. They are stupid like fish, they eat your garbage like fish, they sell on the open market like fish. Keep your kids out of the water, keep your trash locked up, and if they come close to land, scream a lot and bang pots together until they startle away. They’re pretty basic.

My sisters tried to talk to a mermaid once. It was caught up in one of Dad’s trammel nets, and when they went to check the net out back behind the house, they found this mermaid tangled in it. It was a freshwater one, a bottom-feeder, with long, sparse hair whose color my sisters still argue about to this day. Iris, the oldest, felt bad for it and made May splash some water on its fluttery gills with her red plastic pail. She asked the mermaid if it was okay, what its name was. But it just stared at her with its stupid sideways fish eyes, mouth gaping open and closed with mud trickling out over its whiskers. Then Dad came home and yelled at Iris and May for bringing in the nets too early and touching the mermaid, which probably had sea lice and all kinds of other diseases.

The post PseudoPod 492 Replay: The Fisher Queen & The Eugie Award appeared first on PseudoPod.

Aug 25 2016

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Rank #18: PseudoPod 462: Flash On The Borderlands XXIX: Monsters

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PseudoPod 462: Flash On The Borderlands XXIX: Monsters is a PseudoPod original.

“Habeas Corpus” is original to PseudoPod.

“Monster” first appeared in Nameless Magazine, Issue 3, Spring 2014. “I got the idea while watching a documentary on the origins of fractals.”

“Stillborn” originally appeared in the first BORDERLANDS anthology from 1990 edited by Thomas F. Monteleone

“But the problem is to make the soul into a monster” – Arthur Rimbaud

Habeas Corpus

by Julia Watson

narrated by Kaitie Radel

Bottom of the breath, I aim and squeeze. CRACK. Mr. Johnson, our next-door neighbor, falls. Goes still. His noisy mutt, the one you hated, used to welcome me at the end of his chain with rough fur and a wet tongue to wash my salt away. I’m glad that dog’s not here.

Another. A woman—hard to tell who. I fire. As her ruined face explodes into mist, I whisper my thanks to the fool who built a gazebo on this ugly spit of land overlooking Rustridge Canyon—named for the five generations’ worth of scrap refuse the town tossed into it. You’d say I was crazy, boxing myself in, but alone, it’s the only way to get this done.

Monster

by Mike Allen

narrated by Ben Kohanski

Since I grew tall enough to sit at a classroom desk, I’ve longed to be a monster. There is no reason for this that you or your friends in the department will ever be able to find, should you have an opportunity to delve into my history. My mother and father loved each other. They were neither too lenient nor too strict. The bullies in my school, the ones who introduced my fellow gifted students to cycles of humiliation and pain, paid no attention to me at all. My teachers never singled me out for praise or discipline.

Stillborn

by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

narrated by Brian Rollins

Hugh found it in the shallow grave his mother had dug behind the house. He kept it wrapped in cotton above a heat register in the attic, where the dry warmth would preserve it without rotting it. Once it had mummified, he locked his bedroom door and took it out to look at, nights after his mother had gone to bed. When lie shook it, its brain rattled inside its tiny skull like a pea in a gourd. “Little brother,” he would whisper, staring into its sunken leathery face. “Little brother.”

The post PseudoPod 462: Flash On The Borderlands XXIX: Monsters appeared first on PseudoPod.

Oct 31 2015

Play

Rank #19: PseudoPod 550: Again

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“Again” was first published in Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, November 1981 and has been reprinted numerous times.

by Ramsey Campbell

Info on Anders Manga’s album (they do our theme music!) can be found here.

All at once he was no longer sure that the groaning had been the sound of flies. Even so, if the old lady had been watching him he might never have been able to step forward. But she couldn’t see him, and he had to know. Though he couldn’t help tiptoeing, he forced himself to go to the head of the bed.

He wasn’t sure if he could lift the blanket, until he looked in the can of meat. At least it seemed to explain the smell, for the can must have been opened months ago. Rather than think about that—indeed, to give himself no time to think—he snatched the blanket away from the head of the figure at once.

The post PseudoPod 550: Again appeared first on PseudoPod.

Jul 07 2017

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Rank #20: PseudoPod 568: The Room in the Other House

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PseudoPod 568: The Room in the Other House is a PseudoPod original.

The Room in the Other House

by Kristi DeMeester

I’ve counted the moments we once had over and over. Tried to hold them in my hands as if they were solid, but in the end, there is nothing except for the dark scar tracing against my palm. If I squint, it looks like a worm. If I squint, it’s almost like you’re still here.

We found the house when we weren’t looking. Driving along back roads because there was nothing else to do. We’d had too much to drink the night before and needed coffee and open air that tasted of rainwater and the cloying scent of rotting wood. You took the turns too fast, and I squealed and pretended to be angry, but you grinned through all of it, and it was the kind of dangerous smile I loved.

“What if we just never went back?” you said, but it was a conversation we were always having. There was the house we’d just moved into. The one with the extra two-stall garage and bonus room. Space for your workshop. Space for all of that scrapped metal you called a “project.” There was the dog we adopted together when we decided this thing we were doing was more forever than not. There were Monday mornings and paychecks and doctor’s appointments and phone calls. We were not the kind of people to disappear.

And then you did.

You drove, and I let my eyes drift closed and ignored the dark star of a headache that had begun to form. When I opened my eyes, I didn’t recognize the road. The houses were more spaced out. A bleeding away from suburbia into country. Here and there, barbed wire fence lined the road, but there was no livestock penned behind it.

“Where are we?” I said.

You shrugged. “You got somewhere to be, pretty lady?”

“Got a hot date tonight. I need to shave,” I said, but it was loud with the windows down, and you didn’t hear. If you’d heard, you would have laughed.

You should have turned around. When you saw the sign, you should have turned around.

These are the things I tell myself now. The ways I trace my way back to you. Small consolations for all of the mistakes we made that day.

“The hell does that say?” you said when we passed the first sign. Only, it wasn’t a sign. Not really. Two planks of wood nailed together to form the top of a triangle, the bottom piece missing. A phrase painted in green and in all capitals.

“It’s too small,” I said, and then we were past it.

There were no more houses. Only fields and trees and the sky gone dark overhead with the threat of a storm, and your hand on my thigh and slipping up and under the skirt I wore, and there was no one to see us under that broad, unending sky, and I unbuckled your pants and took you in my mouth, and you worked your hand against me, and I came before you did.

It had been years since we’d done that. Like a couple of horny teenagers who’d managed to steal an hour alone, all fumbling hands and wet mouths. I left your jeans unzipped, and you drove with one hand on the wheel, and the other still kneading my thigh.

“There’s another one of those fucking signs,” you said, and this time you slowed down, came almost to a full stop, and leaned out the window. There are times when I think that I reached for you then. My fingers grasping for your shirt, your arm, your hand, any solid thing that would call you back to me, but then my memory is made up of all of these small betrayals, and I think that maybe I didn’t.

“The Father of Lies,” you said and popped the door.

“Get back in the car. You’re going to get us killed. We can’t just be stopped in the middle of the road.”

“You see anyone else out here? Just hold on a second.” You leaned further out, further away, and I turned to watch behind us.

“So fucking weird. The Father of Lies,” you said, but you didn’t close the door.

“Probably some Jesus thing. You know. Repent ye sinners, and all that stuff. Watch for The Father of Lies. He’ll eat your soul,” I said. You didn’t laugh. You didn’t move. Something cold crept along the back of my neck, but I told myself it was the wind or a bug or any of the other things you tell yourself when you don’t want to believe what’s in front of you.

“I don’t think so. It’s something different. Sounds like a scary movie,” you said. You did move then, the door slamming shut behind you, but the engine idled, and you still looked at the sign and lifted your finger in the air, traced the outline.

“Would you come on already? Let’s go,” I said. You turned away then, your hands back on the wheel, and we were moving again, and I tried to settle back into the quiet I’d found earlier, but everything inside of me had gone heavy and light at the same time. Like iron covering something hollow.

“Jesus. They’re everywhere,” you said and pointed. Ahead, the road twisted away, but dotted along the black top where at least five more of the signs. All that strange triangle with no bottom, the neat, green lettering. The Father of Lies.

“Let’s just turn around. Go back,” I said.

“It’s fine. It’s some weird church thing. Like you said. Right?”

“Yeah. Okay,” I said, but you rolled up your window. I like to think you did that for me. To make me feel safe.

When I dream now, everything is green, but you are not there.

You had slowed down to go around a turn—the kind that kids call The Widowmaker and race their bikes down—when I saw the house. It stood just off of the road, was not set back like most houses in the country. The windows were busted out, the wood on the porch rotted and the steps sagging. Another abandoned house in the woods. The kind people write books about.

I didn’t see the toddler until we rounded the corner, the road still curving so you braked even more, and we were moving as if underwater, as if each movement was a slower precursor to something larger.

There was a large, spreading oak tree in front of the house. A monstrous, gargantuan thing that someone would tell you to cut down in case a nasty storm came through. Exposed, gnarled roots against dark earth. A lovely, terrible thing that cast long shadows.

The toddler was underneath the tree, sprawled on his back, his hands dancing through the air as if conducting music only he could hear. Under the tree, he looked fragile, too small to be alone, but he was alone. The house was empty, and there were no other cars, no adults pondering the landscape or taking pictures or changing a flat tire.

“Slow down a second,” I said, and my skin prickled. I craned my neck, looked back to be sure. The toddler still lay on the ground, his pudgy hands lifted to the sky.

“I got it. It’s not like I’m going to flip the car.”

“No. There’s a kid back there. A little kid. Under the tree. I’m pretty sure he’s by himself.”

Your mouth turned down at the corners, and you squinted up into the rearview mirror, and it’s these small moments I miss the most. How your face would move as you were thinking or how when you slept, there were tiny lines next to your eyes. I wonder how long it will be before I start to forget these things.

“You probably just can’t see them,” you said, but you slowed the car again, and I unbuckled and turned around in the seat. The toddler was still there, under the tree, but his hands were at his sides now and his eyes closed, as if he’d drifted off to sleep. Panic slick against my tongue, I watched his chest, my heartbeat slowing just a bit when I finally saw the rise and fall of his breathing.

“There’s no one back there,” I said. You reversed the car then, backed up so that I could see the toddler more clearly. He couldn’t have been more than two with the kind of curling golden hair that make women coo and run their fingers through it. He was dressed simply. A navy shirt and khaki shorts. A pair of dark shoes.

“Stop,” I said. The car jerked beneath us. You’d braked too suddenly. I think it was because you’d finally seen him, too. “You see? There’s no one else around.”

“Holy shit.” Your voice dropped to a whisper.

“Who just leaves their kid in the middle of goddamn nowhere?”

“Maybe they’re around back, or something?”

“We would have seen them when we passed the house. There’s no one out front; no one in back. There sure as hell isn’t anyone inside. You can see straight through the windows to the back. Empty.”

“Okay. Hold on,” you said and looked behind you, backing the car up even further to pull off onto the shoulder.

I’d looked away from the toddler, just for a second to do another sweep of the land, the house, to see if there was someone, anyone, we had missed. A blur of skin and hair hidden behind a tree or a flash of color, a shirt or a pair of jeans, against the green. It couldn’t have been more than five seconds, maybe ten, but when I looked back, the toddler had vanished.

I grasped your shoulder. “He’s gone.”

“What?”

“He’s gone. He’s not there anymore,” I said, and you peered past me, your mouth set in a thin line.

“He’s there,” you said and pointed, and my entire body sagged, the air rushing out of me. I turned to look. Through the busted out windows, I could see him. The toddler had gotten up and wandered inside the house, his chubby little legs jutting out from his shorts that were too small. I could see the dirt on his hands. It made me feel sick, and I remember thinking how strange it was, how awful to look at this child and feel as if I was coming apart, but then the toddler stepped away, and I saw what it was he was moving toward. A fire burned inside the main room. Flames leapt toward the ceiling and flickered just beneath the crumbling plaster.

“There’s a fire. Inside the house. Was there a fire before?” I shook my head. Couldn’t remember. There had been only those open windows like wide hungry mouths gaping around darkness. The trees. The grass. So much silence in this empty place. There had not been a fire, but it was possible I had not seen, possible that this was a new angle and I missed it before. Perhaps there was an adult here who had built it, someone to care for this tiny creature standing transfixed before the jumping flames.

“I don’t think so,” you said.

“I didn’t see…” I trailed off. The toddler crept forward, his hands outstretched as if to catch himself if he fell, but there was a part of me that saw it as an obscene mockery of prayer. But he was a child. Could barely talk. He wouldn’t be doing this. Couldn’t be.

“What is he doing?” you said and shifted forward so that you pressed against my back. This was the last time I touched you. The last time I felt your weight as something that was a part of myself. I’ve tried to call that sensation back, but I cannot remember anymore what it was really like. There is only the stain of it. A bleached out memory I cannot quite take hold of.

The toddler leaned forward, swaying in the way young children do when they are on the verge of losing their balance. “Oh my God,” I said because I knew what would come next, could see that terrible moment unfolding so that I could only reach for the door handle, my fingers banging against the metal and left aching, but I was too far away.

The child tipped forward, and I screamed.

In my mind, I still see those flames. Deep orange and almost beautiful. How they swallowed that small body in massive licks, the clothes, the hair, that smooth skin vanishing so quickly.

I heard you opening your door behind me, but I was moving, throwing open the rear car door to search for anything I could find that could smother the flames, and then I was running, an old towel clutched to my chest as I gasped out something like prayer or like please or like not yet, and I found that I was no longer screaming, my mouth opened wide, but the air around me plucked the sound from my lips.

I was up the front stairs and through the front door, which stood open on broken hinges. My hands shook because my body had memorized what it was I needed to do, but it knew what would come after, and the fear of seeing that small form shriveled and blackened was more terrible than anything I could conjure.

“Oh, God.” There was nothing else to say. Nothing else to do but run toward the wheeling column of flame, my arms extended.

I don’t know when you stopped following me. I didn’t think to look. I only know where I found you before I lost you again.

Before I threw the towel over the child, he turned to look at me, and I could see his face. A slight darkening around the mouth. His eyes so pale they were almost white, bleeding into the sclera. I thought he smiled at me. An impossible thing, but there is the memory, clear and bright, and even after everything that came later, I cannot forget the shape of his small teeth.

“Okay. It’s okay,” I said and threw the towel over him, ready to throw him to the ground and snuff out the flames. When I did, the towel met only air. It fell to the ground with a soft whump. There was no child there in that house. There was nothing.

I held myself still, a whine building in the back of my throat because I knew then that whatever I’d seen, it was wrong. Something that should not be, and I curled into myself, unable to leave this nightmare we’d stumbled into. A line of sweat crept down my neck, and the air tasted of something of foul.

I called your name, but the air was dead. Silent. No bird song or wind. Unnatural. I knew we needed to leave, get back into the car and drive away, not glancing back like Lot’s wife who died with the taste of salt on her lips.

But then I was trying to leave that terrible, empty place behind, and I was saying your name over and over until I knew that I was screaming again, but there was only the walls with peeling paint and exposed wood and gouged floors as if something monstrous had dragged its body over them.

When you answered, your voice sounded far away, but you were only in the next room. Down a small hallway in what looked like a bedroom, but it was too large to be a bedroom. The ceilings opened to the sky, and the floors seemed to stretch away and away. You faced the back wall, your hand against it as if I’d stumbled on you knocking.

“The kid. He disappeared. Just vanished into nothing. We have to leave. We have to leave right now. There’s something wrong here,” I said, and you glanced over your shoulder and then turned back.

“There’s a door. I saw it.”

“It doesn’t matter. We have to go. Now. Please,” I said. You lifted your hand and traced over the wall. I imagine there was dust on your fingers, some ancient reminder of what had once existed here, of whatever still lingered in the silence.

“Wait. Just a minute. Something’s here,” you said, and I remember how you stepped forward, how you pressed your mouth to the wall, how you opened it, your tongue trailing over that crumbling paint.

“Stop it,” I said, but you moaned, your back arching as if something inside of you longed to get out. I turned away, could not bring myself to touch you, to pull you from whatever terrible thing you’d found.

“I can open it. There’s a room there. In the other house,” you said, and you shifted forward, your fingers slipping under some latch I could not see. You grinned. Large. Toothsome. “See? Like the Father of Lies. Something you can see through and exist in at the same time.”

“Don’t. We don’t know what it is,” I said, but you were already through, and I tried not to think of how you’d mentioned the Father of Lies.

“Of course we do. It’s a room in the other house. I’ve already said.”

You went through the door, vanishing all at once into whatever lay beyond. I stood on the other side waiting for you to come back, but I could only hear your voice, the breathless, edgy rasp in it as if you’d been running for a long, long time.

When I heard the dog bark, I crept toward the door—nothing more than an extension of the wall that jutted outward—and called your name, but I did not look through. Not yet. I wonder if I hadn’t looked through, if you would have come back. But I did. And you were there, standing in the middle of a room with nothing in it. No furniture or curtains or pictures on the walls. Smiling and tanned and without the small paunch you’d been putting on over the past two years. Too much beer and too little exercise. The comfort of middle age and a stable relationship settling under our skins and leaving us as less than what we began.

Our dog—the Swiss Mountain Dog mix we’d adopted together because it was something that would belong to the both of us—sat beside you, her left ear cocked as if listening for a pitch we could not hear.

“It’s Nona. We must have left her here somehow,” you said, and Nona looked back at me, but it was not Nona. Not really. Her fur was a bit too thin. Too greasy looking. Her eyes lighter than they should be. Not the color of dark amber but of honey.

“It isn’t Nona. Come out. We have to go,” I said, and you scratched the dog behind the ears and cooed something at her.

“I’ll put her in the car, and we can go. Okay?”

My heart lurched, liquid and hot, in my chest. “No. We’ll get home, and Nona will be there, all curled up on her bed, waiting for us. And whatever that is—” I pointed at the dog. “What will it become once we get there? What will we have brought home with us?”

“Come in, love. Help me,” you said, and the dog opened its mouth then, but the sound that came out of it was not the sound of a dog. It was a child’s laughter. Then a scream.

“No. I want to go home,” I said, but my voice was next to nothing, and you turned and walked away, the motions of your body fluid and lovely and not the lumbering gait I’d memorized the night I fell in love with you.

The dog followed you, but its head still angled to face me, that terrible mouth still open as you turned toward some hallway I couldn’t see, and then you were gone.

I waited there outside of the door until it was dark, a damp chill creeping over my skin. I whispered your name. Over and over until it was a word I no longer recognized as something that had once belonged to me. I clenched the handle of the door tight enough to cut into the soft flesh of my palm. The scar has become a constant reminder that you have fallen into a place I cannot find.

Later, there were police officers. Your mother flew in from Arizona and we sat together at the little table you and I bought at the antique store and drank cup after cup of coffee as she asked the same questions over and over.

Why can’t they find him? How can an entire house just vanish? No one’s ever heard of anything called The Father of Lies. There are no signs about it anywhere. Not like you said. Are you sure it was a house? Are you sure of where it was? Are you sure?

            Always, I had the same answers, the same repeated phrases that added up to less than nothing. Her eyes and the thin line of her mouth grew harder every day until she left without hugging me goodbye.

The police asked those same questions, but with more technicalities. Was he unhappy? Had you argued recently? Was there any reason to believe he would have harmed himself? Are you sure of where the house was?

They searched the car. Our house. They interviewed everyone, asking what kind of person I was, if there was any reason to believe I could have committed some kind of violence against you.

After a year, they stopped asking, and you became another body vanished. Another person eaten by things we’ll never understand. And I’ve been waiting. All of this time. So many nights passing as I stare at the shadows on our ceiling and wait for the feeling of you pulling back the comforter to climb in beside me, the deep smell of your skin, but I am alone in this house that we found, the start of our life together thrown into this unnatural stasis.

It has been a year and a half since you walked into that room in the other house. The house I cannot find, on a road that doesn’t seem to exist. I’ve researched The Father of Lies but there’s nothing on the Internet except for thousands of entries about a Bible verse, but none of it adds up to anything that will bring you back. Nothing in any of the libraries I’ve visited, with their gray-haired ladies who twist up their mouths when I ask them if they’ve ever seen anything like that before.

I am different now. Thinner. The planes of my face are sharp and hungry. My hair cropped close so that I don’t have to brush it. I do not think you would fall in love with me if you saw me now.

It has been a year and a half of learning how to navigate around the space you left.

When the door appears in our house it is winter. A thin crust of snow lies over dead earth. There is a sky that looks drained of color, caught between gray and white. I am looking for the spare set of sheets we’d bought when I find it. Standing no taller than my shoulders and narrow, hiding in a place where there has never been a door before.

I know now that you are trying to find a way back to me.

I throw open the door and peer inside. It is a room I’ve seen before. In the other house. The one I cannot find.

The room in the other house is dark. Empty. I sink to the floor, clinging to the knob. You are not there. After all this time, you are not there.

“You have to be here,” I say into the darkness, and I hear something shift. A soft exhalation. A sound that could have been a sigh.

You do not emerge from the shadows, do not come rushing forward with arms outstretched, and I bite my wrist so I will not sob.

But then there is your voice, gentle and sweet, and you speak to me from the darkness, and the door seems to open wider, the whole world spilling forward.

“Where have you been? How did I lose you?” you say, and I cry out then, my hands trembling as I inch myself toward the threshold.

“Come out. Please. Follow my voice. I’m here,” I say.

“Come through so I can see you. I need to see you. Your face.”

Still, I see nothing in that room. Nothing that could be you, but your voice goes on and on. There is nothing else I want to hear.

“Come through the door. I’ve missed you so much,” you say.

I close my eyes. Extend my hands so they are inside the room where you were lost. The air is damp, and I hold my hands out to you, palm up, as if in supplication.

I lean forward and into the darkness breathe one word. I hope it will be enough.

The post PseudoPod 568: The Room in the Other House appeared first on PseudoPod.

Nov 10 2017

35mins

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PseudoPod 705: Vertep

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“Vertep” was first published in The First Book of Classical Horror Stories, ed. D.F. Lewis, with Megazanthus Press in 2012 and then reprinted in Watt’s collection The Phantasmagorical Imperative, Egaeus Press, 2014.



Interview with Colin Stetson regarding the Hereditary Score
https://www.theverge.com/2018/6/12/17451100/hereditary-composer-colin-stetson-interview

Tubular Bells
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tubular_Bells

PseudoPod 100: The Music of Eric Zahn
https://pseudopod.org/2008/07/25/pseudopod-100-the-music-of-erich-zann/

The Underwood Collection: Afterdamp
https://pitchlibrary.sounder.fm/show/the-underwood-collection

Vertep

by Daniel Watt

The jack-in-the-box is a simple toy. It is a wooden box. The wooden box has a handle. The handle, when turned, operates a mechanism. The mechanism powers a music box. The music box plays a little tune. The little tune, as if by magic, calls (from his hidey hole) the ‘jack’—a clown, or other children’s toy. Things follow a very simple pattern in the world of the jack-in-the-box—but, despite their simplicity, they always guarantee a surprise. 

I collect jack-in-the-boxes. I repair them; sometimes I even trade in them—when money is tight. I collect other things too—don’t we all! I’m a hoarder more than anything; old records, postcards, books and magazines, but mostly records—and jack-in-the-boxes. These things—and the gathering of them—are my hobbies. It passes the time.

1. The Fair

It was a fairly ordinary antique fair. The kind that asks you to pay to go in because browsing around old junk is something of an entertainment, and someone has to pay the rent. This one was in a local leisure centre, on the May bank holiday. 

I’d never intended to go in there. 

I know what you’re thinking but honestly I hadn’t. 

Suzanne was in town, looking for some new fabric to recover a footstool. She’d taken up upholstery, following a short course at the local college. I’d said I’d take a wander around the town and had ended up back at the car-park after a fruitless search of the local charity shops for interesting vinyl. There were a couple of recordings of fairground organs, but I had so much of that kind of stuff already unplayed that I decided it wouldn’t be worth the ear-bashing I’d get for ‘cluttering’ the place up with more ‘junk’. So I gave them a miss. They were only 50p each though—a shame really. 

So I’d gone into the fair to kill the hour before I said I’d meet Suzanne at the car. Over the years I’d been a few times and watched the gradually ageing traders lose interest in their stalls, and inevitably a few had passed away too, not to be replaced—this was not a young person’s trade.

It had become more like a car-boot sale now and I flitted from stall to stall, tutting at the overpriced attic-junk on offer. Just as I was beginning to wonder whether I might even manage an hour there I found a table with at least a few interesting items on it. There was a wonderful carved jade ship (not priced, unsurprisingly!), and some decent ivory figurines (locked in a glass case with their price labels tucked beneath them). 

While these items were certainly fascinating there was no way that I would be able to afford them, but as a moment of pleasure amidst the hopefully priced modern ‘collectibles’ it was a very welcome relief. Sadly I inhabited that awkward space between dealer and amateur collector—knowing enough to identify a dud, but without the clout to strike a real ‘deal’. It is a situation that only ever guarantees disappointment and resentment—until you find that gem, of course.

So, I stared at the fine items on this stall, more as a museum-goer than a buyer. And I was content, until I spotted the box.

It was on the next stall, beside a portable gramophone in a luxurious blue velvet case. The gramophone would have been enough of a delight—as I said I’m a record collector and I have three gramophones, in varying states of repair—but this was an old jack-in-the-box!

The stallholder seemed disinterested in potential customers, quite unlike the other desperate salesmen and women that tired their prospective customers with invented blather about the history of even the shoddiest plastic toy. Instead he sat there polishing a tall brass oil lamp, without a care for anyone that paused to scan his offerings.

His table looked barely capable of supporting the assembled wares. It was one of those folding wallpaper tables, sagging slightly in the middle, and I scooped the box up swiftly in case it should suddenly collapse.

I examined it carefully, perhaps—even then—desperately.

The front panel was carved in relief with a proscenium arch and a slightly jutting stage area of wooden boards. The background was painted black, with twinkling silver stars and a crescent moon. The other sides were not carved but were decorated in a fading, chipped paint. The back had a fairly crude painting of closed red curtains with golden braid—I surmised this might have been added later. The left side though had a stylised scene of jagged blue and white mountain tops with a similar black sky, stars and moon. On the right side an opulent room was decorated with golds, reds and oranges (now flaking quite badly), with a great green divan surrounded by exotic plants and miniature palms. A metal crank bar with a red and cream ceramic handle jutted from amidst the foliage.

It was clearly old.

The crumpled brown label—that had evidently seen many months on the road—read ‘Petrushka – £100’. 

I said, ‘Is that Petrushka the puppet, or the ballet?’ 

‘Eh?’ the proprietor muttered, looking up from polishing the oil-lamp.

‘I said, does the label refer to the puppet within—Petrushka—or the tune it plays?’ 

‘I dunno,’ he replied. ‘Why not give it a try?’

I did. 

It was the tune. A few bars cranked out, with a metallic twang, and then a grinding noise. 

Nothing popped out. 

‘It’s bust,’ the man said. ‘Tried to get it goin’—no joy. Still plays the tune though. Pretty, ain’t it?’

‘Pretty indeed!’ I said, immediately regretting my enthusiasm.

Unfortunately he smelt interest on me. There would be little chance of getting a bargain here. The lovely painted panels had intrigued me though and already—with Petrushka playing in my head—I was captivated.

And so I had another jack-in-the-box; this one broken. 

It cost me one hundred pounds—but Suzanne didn’t need to know that (we were saving for a cruise). One hundred pounds; because I loved it, and the mystery it contained.

2. A Room Below

I have a Linn Sondek LP12. Wherever possible I have invested in the finest quality, for all of the things I collect. The turntable was purchased with the small inheritance I received from my father. I remember him with every record that I play through it, for he taught me about music, and about value—not the crude value of commodity, but the real value of experience. Suzanne could say little about it, because the money was more rightfully mine than anything earned by my own efforts. Although she did comment that she thought the purchase extravagant, especially with the bathroom suite still in need of replacement. I have had it now for nearly twenty years and, as long as I am attentive to its proper maintenance, I am confident it will continue to provide good service for many more.

It was upon this turntable that I played Stravinsky’s Petrushka, as I made my first attempts to fix the jack-in-the-box. It seemed fitting that I should play that anarchic ballet as I repaired the little mechanism. It shouldn’t take long, I thought, not that there was anything pressing to attend to that afternoon though. Suzanne had already made her way upstairs with the fabric for the footstool and it was unlikely we would see each other again before dinner.

Suzanne and I had our separate recreation rooms now; mine the extensive dining room to the rear of the house, filled with my record collection and tall bookcases that housed the jack-in-the-boxes, books and other small collections. She had the third bedroom upstairs, where she was able to engage in her sewing and upholstery without being disturbed by my music. It was a classic arrangement for a childless couple such as ourselves, rooms that had previously been allocated to the future, with hope and love, fell back to our provenance and soon we had widened the gaps between us already forced open by disappointment and an aching sense of inadequacy.

I had located my copy of Petrushka (or Petrouchka as it appears on my record) easily. I am a practical man and have always catalogued my collection alphabetically by composer, artist or band. I have never been interested in some form of obscurantist assembly by theme, period or other individual whim. It was a lovely 10inch copy of Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting the New York Philharmonic in 1951. I set the turntable going and settled down at the dining room table, with my set of tools, to discover the fault with the jack-in-the-box.

The first light steps of the ballet shot through me, it was scintillating—something between a chorus of pipes from some dark woodland bacchanal and a frothy celebratory folk dance. I read the sleeve notes: first performed in Paris on the 13th of June 1911, with Nijinsky in the title role. Here, more than a century on, this music was filling me with fresh delight, calling across the years with the spirit of other people and their traditions; each note erupting with past cultures and hidden lives, unreachable without this translation into a sound so alive with narrative.

I tinkered away at the box, with little to show for my efforts. There seemed to be no screws or other fitments that would enable easy access to the working parts of the toy. The catch that held the lid down merely pivoted uselessly on a loose hinge. I attempted, as carefully as possible, to prise the lid of the box open with a small screwdriver, but feeling the wood begin to splinter I stopped. 

Perhaps, I thought (or hoped), it might merely be a problem with the timing cog for the release on the lid. A few squirts of WD40 through the handle bar and into the mechanism might loosen it. 

So I tried that, followed by a few exploratory prods with the screwdriver.

I then turned the handle and allowed it to play out its tinkling rendition of the opening to the record I was listening to, hoping for the best.

Oddly enough, rather than playing the first few bars of the tune, the box played the exact section I was listening to on the turntable, which was about halfway through the second tableau of the ballet.

It seemed to me that the room was suddenly filled with some great presence. Certainly the music had shifted from its initial frivolous, repetitive refrains, jiggling like some clowning doll on a stick. It had now taken on a darker quality, a savage grandeur oppressing a cowardly undercurrent of strings. And this was now awkwardly echoed by the jack-in-the-box with its childish, tinny tune.

In both the recording and the music box there seemed to be a repetitive sequence of notes that called to me, either through some primitive echo or a metaphysical resonance, this strange blending of the base with the spiritual left me ill at ease.

But the ‘presence’ I had felt was surely no more than my own excitement at the puzzle of the box, and the quality of the booming waves of sound that were echoing around the dining room. Music has that quality I find—to produce physical effects within the body. But it needs suitable surroundings in which to do this. Rather than the inner world of the headphones and the tinkling mp3 file I prefer an environment and the delayed resonances set up through the architecture of space and the struggle of notes and harmonies against the confines of their enclosure. Suzanne, misunderstanding entirely the need for such an acoustic, does not appreciate the necessity for volume—she has different sensibilities, if she has sensibilities at all anymore.

Despite these broader reflections on the quality of music and my more mundane situation with Suzanne I had been unable to shake off a vague anxiety that had set in upon me.

I turned the record off.

I decided upon an experiment. I would turn the record over and set the needle at a random point on side two. I would then set the turntable going and wind the music box again. The limited amount of track contained on the small metal tumbler usually contained within these music boxes would not extend to that section of the record; unless, of course, there was an entirely different apparatus powering this one.

A spritely fanfare blasted through the speakers.

I turned the jack-in-the-box handle and then released it apprehensively.

From the speakers, just as the fanfare subsided, a drum roll announced something portentous.

The box, in its twinkling fashion, chimed out the beats perfectly in time with the record. And then both seemed to soar into some ethereal burst of waltz. There seemed now no difference between the record and the music from the box. This was certainly no simple barrel tune mechanism operating within it.

Something inside me collapsed. Not beneath a flood of revelation but rather with a sigh of disintegration, more like the slow deflation of a balloon. For there it was—that repetitive chord again, as though it had been struggling beneath the surface of the world for all eternity; endowing everything with life but also with the cruel volatility of entropic death. That diabolical cascade of arpeggios seemed to crawl into the currents of the air and I saw at last the power of music—its ability to penetrate the core of everything and infect existence with passion once more. And it was clear to me that Stravinsky had felt this too—knowledge began to come to me as pure inspiration, as startling and fresh as the idiosyncratic sonorities playing out through this revolutionary score. 

This man was not a simple composer but some herald of synchronicities undreamt of by mortals. He was an aberrant child sired by a trinity; his genius fused with the fresh melodic harmony of Rimsky-Korsakov, dependable as the formal rigour of Glazunov, and as turbulent as the deep ritual of Mussorgsky. From that moment I worshipped the strangeness of Stravinsky as though he were some old god in bright new raiment.

And, it was obvious to me now, the jack-in-the-box was some curious relic attuned to Stravinsky’s majestic vision. It would require patience, and proper supplication, to attune myself to the rhythmic codes and systems of its mystery. It required a quest to find the simple switch by which reality, modified only slightly, might shift the eternal gears of the world and the box would reveal its purpose.

3. A Room Above

Over the following weeks I played the record and turned the handle of the jack-in-the-box whenever time allowed. Perhaps I was not systematic enough in my devotions, or I had yet to discover the temporal constructions through which such rituals should operate—my mind was not of an occult persuasion and I ventured no further than a rather lazy repetition of worn out procedures. 

Simply put, the wondrous wooden box has a beautiful handle. This handle, when turned, operates an intricate and hidden mechanism. The hidden mechanism powers a music box, of incredible versatility and infinite ingenuity. This ingenious music box calls to vast realms of possibility. This call, given time, should summon from the depths, or draw from the firmament, the ‘jack’—a sundering of space and time. Things follow a complex and mystical pattern in the world of the jack-in-the-box—but, sometimes, things don’t always function the way they should.

I suppose it was religious practice, of a kind.

Often, in these moments—of prayer—I would slip into a kind of daydream, or projection of my inner being. I floated over vast landscapes and squirmed through deep dark earthy places. I flitted through feverish crowds in great shaded bazaars and soared across rich blue seas alive with great frolicking shoals of enormous fish.

But one vision began to recur. I saw great masses of people, pressed against each other, circling aimlessly, yet every face alive with delight. These circles of bodies were themselves comprised of other circles of family groups clinging tightly together, so that the whole gathering, when viewed from above by my dancing mind, took on the image of a huge clock mechanism, its parts all revolving in one majestic dance.

After indeterminate stretches of time I would always emerge at some vast marketplace with trailing tunes of Russian folk dances skipping through the smoky night air that rang with laughter and cheering. I would find my way, through a thick and stinking throng of audience, to a little wooden booth. It had two performance spaces, one above the other. In the bottom one a puppet on a stick cavorted around the space on a little cloth horse. The puppet had a great hooked nose and crooked grin and it seemed to get the best of all who came to challenge him. The words of the performance were lost to me, spoken as they were through some shrill whistling device that served only to solicit great laughs from the crowd.

And then in an instant I would be there too, inside the booth, strung upon a stick, awaiting my entrance. I was thrust into the upper room and danced a little jig, my silly wooden arms flailing about hopelessly before them all—beasts that laughed and whinnied at my ridiculous antics. 

And then the real show began.

 I was propped in the wings, my little arms and legs hanging limply down beside me. And a glorious nativity scene played out in the room above, complete with wonderfully carved angels and animals. The crowd, penitent or proud, watched this wordless scene in awe and then the little doors of the booth were closed and all was darkness.

‘You haven’t forgotten that Aleksander and Sarah are coming around tonight have you Peter?’ a voice called out. I was back in the dreary dining room, staring at the mysterious jack-in-the-box.

I had forgotten. But I made an attempt to prepare for the evening. It was not worth fighting over.

When they arrived, our oldest friends, and the due rituals had been observed; the giving of the flowers and the wine; the return of glasses and snacks; the talking; the laughing; the agreements and the news—oh! the endless news—of children and holidays, and plans and investments. What hours of cynical evasion and hollow bombast.

I asked myself how many friendships had there been that resembled ours, barely resuscitated every few months with dinner and smiles? How many lovers had loved like Suzanne and me, collapsing into distance and distrust? Everything was only a fading mirage of previous forms. The names were different, but the passions and the disappointments were the same. 

Perhaps the wondrous creature in the box fed purely from the spirit of our fantasies, our hopes and failures.

It was clear: it required us to radically alter our situations, to challenge the rules of our fixed lives. Then it would respond with its gifts, its teachings.

The conversation rolled on through the starters and main course, until Aleksander asked what I had been up to recently. He was always interested in my little hobbies, and often we found ourselves in the dining room, after the girls had retired to the lounge, playing records and looking through little treasures from my collection.

I seized the opportunity, confident that beneath the basic question there lurked some knowledge of my recent efforts.

I told them about the jack-in-the-box, and jumped up to play Stravinsky’s Petrushka. I told them about the dreamy journeys that seemed to lead, more often than ever now, to the Russian fair and the curious puppet booth.

And then it occurred to me that Aleksander and Sarah were also little players in all this game. They may well be the key to the box. Why else would they be here?

‘Aleksander, you are my oldest friend,’ I began. ‘Might we play at a little something—a sort of charades, if you like. We have never quarrelled. That may be significant.  Can I ask you to deliver me a wounding blow after a vicious argument? I don’t mean a simple slap or punch. I mean something serious—drawing blood. We must turn the tables, for one night only everything must be different!’

The three faces at the table stared at me, amazed.

They were right—it was all too contrived. This would never satisfy those intricate mechanisms at work inside the jack-in-the-box. Nothing would release the great elemental from the box save for the endless rehearsal of these roles until finally the world happened upon the formula by chance. 

And here I was—foolish, worthless, novice—trying to encourage these others to attempt different configurations of their being. But they were uninitiated. They did not understand, or did not want to.

‘I’m sorry,’ Suzanne chirped up. ‘Peter’s not been focusing very well on things recently.’

Sarah nodded agreement and offered one of those sympathetic smiles.

Of course I’d been focusing on things—just not Suzanne’s things, or things she could even begin to comprehend,

‘Well, we must be up early anyway,’ Aleksander added, dutifully. The whole thing was descending into a wretched, worn out script.

The polite babble continued for some time. 

I couldn’t wait for them all to be gone to get back to my Stravinsky and his jack-in-the-box.

I could see our friends were not impressed by my ideas, but I was passed caring about anything but what was hidden in that painted box. And who can blame them really. Who wants their world turned to the polarity of stars and shadows? I too was tired of maniacal dreams, but that tiredness was suffered in exchange for a deeper truth, a metaphysical revelation that might erase all form and return us to that first eternal chord. For who, WHO, can resist the truth—that infernal machine, that conflagration of desires—when finally it arrives, resplendent and repellent, at the doors of your mind?

4. Evening Falls, or, The Grand Carnival

I had to face the other music first though. It started straight away upon her return from saying goodbye to Aleksander and Sarah.

‘So, what the hell is going on?’ she yelled, storming into the dining room just as I was about to put the turntable on. ‘And what is it with that damned stupid record? You’d better tell me what this is all about, Peter. You’re starting to sound like a nutter.’

I just stared at her and lowered the needle. The blissful dance began.

‘You can turn that off for a start. I’m serious,’ she said, calmer and more insistent. ‘I want us to discuss all of this right now!’

I didn’t reply. I merely walked over to my shelves and carefully lifted down the Petrushka box. I cleared some plates and glasses from the table, where Suzanne had been sitting, and I turned the handle and allowed it to join the recording with its delicate metallic tune blending into the melodic madness. If only I could worship in such a fashion, I thought. But my frail human voice could not hope to offer suitable veneration. I would have to be content with merely mental adoration of the great mystery.

Apparently she was still there, watching me. ‘It’s just a fucking box, Peter—a fucking stupid wooden box’, her little squeaky words fractured the beauty of my sanctuary. ‘You do remember that it’s just a kid’s toy, don’t you?’

She would soon become bored, I was certain. She did not understand that I must attempt further reconfigurations. Indeed, she did not understand what the nature of such reconfigurations might even be.

‘Do you know how ugly you look right now? Hunched over that fucking thing like some perverted Quasimodo…’ On and on she went like this; words, words, words—breaking down the delicate, reverent atmosphere with their brutal meanings and their aggressive finality. If only they could have the beautiful multiplicity of music—the endless resonance, the infinite connectivity. 

Still the words went on. ‘Listen to me, you crazy fucker! I don’t know if it’s that box or you that’s evil—but one of you is! How can you have let yourself get like this? Well, I’ll tell you what! I’ll tell you what—let’s find out exactly which it is shall we…’

I had seen movement from the corner of my eye but had assumed she had left the room. Then suddenly her arms reached over from behind me and picked up the box. 

I had been surprised—caught off guard—but I leapt up to defend the sanctity of this holy place.

She turned and glared at me triumphantly before reaching up to cast the jack-in-the-box against the wall—the only thing in the world that could offer us true salvation.

It was then that I struck her. Not once, but repeatedly, back and forth with a savage glee. My little arms churned about her rag-doll body like spiky wooden spindles.

‘There, how do you like my teaching, my pretty dear!’ I cried, with a shrill delight, backed by a flare of whistling from the Stravinsky, its ravishing notes swelling and cavorting around my bloodied fists. ‘Yes, one more little lesson. There, there, there!’

I returned to the table as the second tableau was ending, and the record slid into its endless final groove. A static hum came through the speakers, punctuated by the click of eternal revolutions.

I turned the handle on the jack-in-the-box with my aching, sticky fingers.

It finally gave up its secrets with a tired clunk. 

Inside the lid there was an intricate scene of revellers; nursemaids, gypsy girls, coachmen, a dancing bear. Many were masked but one in particular stood out from all the others, with a devilish hooked nose and a wide, crooked grin.

A limp puppet figure emerged, bounced a moment on a worn-out spring and sat there idly rocking slowly back and forth, all worn out by time and the fading splendours of forgotten histories. The little music box whirred out its last few ringing notes.

I sat, out of breath, staring at the little puppet.

But the face on it, what a remarkable face! Its great hooked nose and crooked grin had been crudely chiselled from a small block of wood and appeared to be splintering apart. Indeed it was. That wonderful face—so familiar, yet so unbearably other—was disintegrating and reforming into multitudes of faces; great crowds of faces, looming for an instant and then vanishing, melting into each other. All the ridiculous faces! All the remarkable, wonderful, ridiculous faces! All the wonder, horror, sadness, love and light of humanity in one ludicrous wooden doll that had been hidden for years, perhaps for centuries—no, millennia!—here in this little box; a sacred box that had finally given up its secret to me. They all bobbed along with the churning hurdy-gurdy of the master playing in my mind—all the eyes and cheeks, lips and noses, sliding into a magical mirage of identities.

And the last face—oh yes, you can guess that quite well—was my own; with little rosy cheeks, black eyes that glinted with fury, and that great hooked nose and crooked grin that seemed to reveal a deeper, more monstrous physiognomic pattern that I could never have imagined bubbled beneath all our fleshy little masks.

My consciousness soared again—released by the spiky sounds of Petrushka, that seemed to erupt around the room like a great burst of fire. Untethered, my inner self was able to dance again—as it had in that mad little booth at the Russian fair. I saw myself from above, my dwindling plastic form twitching as crazily as my soul now did. I saw my eyes roll; blue eyes, green eyes, brown eyes, eyes of molten glass, eyes of vengeful steel, eyes of water and fire.

I watched as Suzanne managed to stagger to her feet, and with a great effort she grasped one of the dining room chairs and swung it at my back. It splintered apart as easily as my tired bones disintegrated. I watched, and laughed, as she bashed my brittle little skull apart with frantic swipes of the broken chair legs, and with a last great blow she smashed the fragile box into fragments. Then her ragged body gave way and joined be in a bloodied heap upon the floor.

How silly we both looked; all black and blue, all bruised and purple. How crumpled we both looked; all broken and battered, all smashed and splintered. 

How quiet we were and what silence roared about us—mouths agape into eternity.

The post PseudoPod 705: Vertep appeared first on PseudoPod.

May 29 2020

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PseudoPod 704: Resilience

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PseudoPod 704: Resilience is a PseudoPod original.

Escape Pod turns 15! Preorder the anthology! Check out the other news here: https://mailchi.mp/e7810b939179/escape-pod-turns-15

Resilience

by Christi Nogle

Jason gets home while I’m at the sink. He comes up behind me, holds me around the waist, and tickles the side of my face with his soft new beard. We watch the young squirrels shake a tree branch, listen to them chatter through the open window. They zoom across the front yard and across the street. 

“How was it with Dr. Emory?” asks Jason. He already realizes his slip. “Watson, sorry.”

“Watson-Newcamp, actually. She’s wonderful, just as promised,” I say.

As soon as I say it, I wonder if I mean it. The new doctor, just thirty or thirty-five, struck me as someone I might do yoga or lunch with, but she spoke just as slowly and gently as Dr. Emory. Her round eyes were so dark you almost couldn’t make out the pupils. 

“I’m glad he left you in good hands,” says Jason. I think he might stay and talk, but he has chores too. He takes the garbage and recycling bins out the back door, then our son Simon comes rumbling down the stairs. That’s all I see of either of them until dinner. 

Simon’s ten now, but he still doesn’t know about my past, so we don’t speak about the new doctor over dinner or while we wind down in the living room. I’m thinking of her, though. When she asked what I’d like to talk about, I assumed that she wanted to hear my story, though doubtless she already knew a lot. When I was six, I was the sole survivor of an attack that left my entire immediate family dead. Watson-Newcamp didn’t let on that she knew anything in particular. She just let me speak. 

 Something about the whole appointment troubled me. It wasn’t only that she was so young. It was her consultation room, too, everything just on the edge of modern, all cool colors and light. Dr. Emory’s room was like a professor’s office in a movie, with bookcases full of dark-skinned books and the old leather furniture with brass tacks up the sides and all. 

There was something I said at the consultation, something that looked small on its surface but bothered me as I drove home and for the rest of the evening. I said that when they found me, just a little six-year-old child limping along a mountain road, my designer jeans all torn and burnished with dirt, they didn’t know who I was right away. I didn’t look like the girl in those pictures of the missing family. My hair had grown and bleached out during the time I was lost in the woods. My skin had burned over and over again, lips cracked in the dry air, nose broken weeks before in a fall. I didn’t look like my pictures. 

I said to Watson-Newcamp—and this is what made her expression change, just subtly—I said, “My face burned so badly because they always kept me inside in the daytime.” 

But that was an absolutely ridiculous thing to say. My face had burned like that because I’d been a well-cared-for little girl. They’d always put sunscreen on me when I played outside. 

When I go to make Simon’s breakfast, the milk on the fridge door is well past its expiration date. I give it a whiff and pour it into my coffee, then get out the new gallon for Simon’s cereal. Jason and Simon go out for a bike ride right after breakfast. I should go too, but I’m still a little off, a little sad about Dr. Emory retiring. He’s been my rock all these years. 

I unlock the trunk at the end of the bed to look at the mess of family photos again. Mom and Dad’s wedding, Abbie’s school photos, holidays. It’s sad to think these all belong to me now and no one else. I could never share them with Simon because he’d ask questions. Well, maybe I’ll feel differently when he’s a little older. 

I come to the photo I keep on the bottom, the picture of Mom, Dad, Grandpa, my sister Abbie and her boyfriend Ben, and me. We’re at a garish pink-and-green painted picnic table, all of us with double-scoop ice creams, grinning big for the camera under an overcast sky. All of us but Ben wear brand-new outfits from some pricy outdoor store. Mom never printed out this photo; I did, years later. It was just something she had a stranger take for us and then posted online. It was the one printed in newspapers, the one that must have played over and over on the nightly news. It was the last one she took. Cell service must have ended just after that stop. 

Ben’s face catches me, out of all of them. Such a magnetic, witty face. Jason, in his better moments, has something of his smile. With a cringe I wonder, not for the first time, if that’s what first attracted to me to my husband. 

I feel guilty after looking at the photos and decide to do some cleaning before the boys get home. Nothing much, just a couple of loads of laundry and the breakfast dishes. Simon’s room is orderly for the most part, but I notice that the front of his fish tank is all dark with algae. The one big surviving catfish huddles under his gnarl of driftwood like he always does when the water’s too dank. I should be pissed at Simon, but I’m not that kind of mom. I’m upset with myself for not noticing it sooner. 

 I have to round up the tube we use to vacuum and the bucket and scraper before I can set to work. When I finally open the lid, the tank smells rich, like earth. I find it satisfying to scrape the algae off the glass, and am already thinking ahead to the satisfaction of vacuuming up the dark water. I want to do a thorough job, so I lift off the back part of the tank and see, lying across the plastic support, a thick line of algae different from the rest. This is where specks of fish food have fallen. It’s dark and, when I touch it, springy; a quarter-inch thickness of green sponge like the skin of a toad. When I smell my fingers, the scent is earthy like the water but fishy as well. I use the scraper to slide the long strip into the water and then, unable to stop myself, I lift it out and bite off a piece. And another. 

The taste is green and rich, something like seaweed but a little meaty, too, a little salty. The feel of it in my mouth is like wet velvet. 

I rush from the room, thinking to brush my teeth, but I can’t help it. I go back. Three times I go back until the whole long strip of it is gone, and then I suck-start the hose vacuum. I watch the swirl of dark sludge come up from the gravel: algae and leftover food, excrement and whatever else a fish sloughs off. I take in several swallows of the dark stuff before I finally do stop myself and let the hose end fall into the bucket. The flavor lingers in my mouth while I do the rest. The room is warming, light hot on my back. By the time I am done and my boys come in, the guilt is gone and nothing but a cozy feeling remains in my belly. 

The boys are bushed, but there’s much left to do. Grocery shopping—and Simon needs a new bike helmet while we’re out.

More cleaning. 

Always more cooking. 

Simon’s friend Sam sleeps over on Saturday and stays until noon on Sunday. It isn’t until evening that I think to tell Jason that Watson-Newcamp would like to see me a little more often than Dr. Emory did. I’ll be going once a week, at least at first.

“Fridays are the only times that really work for her,” I say. 

Jason makes a pouty face and pulls me close. “Poor baby, losing your Fridays,” he says. 

Dr. Emory said, more than a few times, that I was the most resilient child he had ever known. He made me feel that I was strong. 

Watson-Newcamp is different. Where Dr. Emory felt it was a fine thing to be a mother and wife, Watson-Newcamp wants to know about my personal goals for the future, which makes me uncomfortable. The truth is, I’ve barely ever needed to work. There was money from my parents’ small estate and my father’s insurance, money from donations, and a bit of support from the state. 

My aunt Kara and Uncle Chuck took me in. I’d never met them, or any of the extended family, but I’d talked to Kara often on the phone. They’d both followed my story online from birth and fretted over me all the time the family was missing. They became good parents for my sake. 

I could have gone to college, but Jason and I were already close. I didn’t want to be away from him. We had a small wedding, and Simon came eighteen months later. Jason has always made enough, and we live simply. Dr. Emory seemed to feel that all of this was fine and right. 

Watson-Newcamp is different. Three Fridays gone now, I know all her expressions. A certain look she fixes on me sometimes—I feel like she is searching for cracks in a facade. When she asks where I see myself in the future, I hear myself speaking about how far Jason will go at work and about how eventually Simon will go off to college. I hear how it sounds, but I have nothing else to say except what I am saying. 

Even her name, Newcamp. It makes me remember Ben saying we ought to see more than just the campground, how we left Mom and Grandpa at the barbell-shaped campsite. I tell, for the millionth time, how Dad, Ben, Abbie and I all hiked up a ridge. I remember the wildflowers to her. I tell her how they first mentioned the word “lost,” about Dad angry and helpless, Abbie refusing to believe that Ben couldn’t get us back to camp. 

Abbie told him to relax, just sit and think, and we would be back by dinner, surely, but then night fell. We were in a new camp, after all, far away from all of our things. Ben set about building us a little fire. Frightened, I leaned into Dad, which only let me feel how old and weak he was.

Not long after closing our eyes, we heard the people approaching, laughing. 

I need to clean the fridge before Jason gets home. There’s a container of macaroni and cheese at the back that’s frosted with lush emerald mold. I skim off the top layer with my fingers and swallow it cold, then in a rush I drink the pink liquid from the top of the old cottage cheese. Behind the new salad mix is an old sack with three fingers of pulp soaking in green liquid that tastes harsher than it should. I feel warm and content the whole time I’m tipping things into the garbage, but when I’m drying the containers, my bowels begin to rumble. 

By the time Jason gets home, I’m stuck upstairs with a bout of hot, acidic diarrhea. Everything in moderation, I think, but late in the night I steal downstairs for something more. I squeeze raw chicken juice into a glass, add eggs and a dash of cayenne. I sit at the table sipping my concoction and thinking about the past. 

I was their change-of-life baby. My sister Abbie was already sixteen when we went camping. Her boyfriend was just two or three years older, but he knew the area well and had tempted us with his stories. Ben was like someone in the movies; he charmed us all. My sister was always a little nothing next to him. In the pictures she comes off as prissy and slow-witted—but sweet, pretty like me. 

They never found Ben. They found Mom and Grandpa back at the campground with their throats slashed, which was what started the search. Mom was found lying in her sleeping bag and Grandpa on his face a few yards into the brush. They figured he’d been going to pee and she’d been napping when it happened. Searchers found Dad and Abbie a few weeks later, miles from the site, long gone and crouched among the tree roots in the side of a little creek. Both were poisoned. Not from something in the woods. It was a baffling mixture of chemicals; everything from antifreeze to flecks of deadly mushroom. It looked like Dad and Abbie had been holding onto one another while they died. 

The camping trip was late in May; the limping girl found on November first. “Call my aunt Kara.” That’s the first thing I said. 

There were many, many doctors and officers and lawyers, many cold blank rooms, and then Aunt Kara and Uncle Chuck’s little house on its acre lot (a space that seemed to have been waiting for a child. The swing set sprouted up there and then the trampoline, the birthday balloons, the laughter). 

Mom and Dad had been teaching me to read, Kara knew from the posts they’d been making—and from our calls. I didn’t remember any of my learning at first—could barely talk, after all—but I re-learned it all quickly. 

In time, all the other doctors and investigators fell away, leaving only Dr. Emory. Our visits stayed regular, but became less frequent as he saw how I thrived. I played soccer, made solid if unexceptional grades, made friends. My hair grew back just as brown and glossy as it had been before. I grew beautiful. 

We always worried about what would happen with my skin after that wicked sunburn, but we kept an eye on it. I’m thirty now, and nothing has happened. 

Dr. Emory published a few pieces about me, but despite the bookshelves, he was not a scholar. I was the highlight of his career, the most resilient child he’d ever know. His pride and wonder drove me, helped me heal. I was normal. All that had happened to me, and I had bounced back unscarred. 

In my dream, I sit on a four-poster bed with a red and pink patterned quilt, leaning over a sick little girl. “Call my aunt Kara,” she says.

In my dream, the house is coming apart, black mold growing up its walls, vines creeping in through shattered windows. They always kept me inside, I tell Watson-Newcamp. She and I are seated in brass-bradded old leather chairs in a running pool of sewage in the center of my living room. Frilly white mushrooms dance on the surface of the pool. I want to harvest them. I am struggling to keep this desire from her. She is the first to reach down. 

When she sits up again, she is Grandma. (The one they called Grandma, I correct myself.) The heavy white makeup, long hair dyed black, the red-lined mouth stuffed now with the supple flesh of mushrooms.

“Taste of it. Just taste it,” she groans with her mouth open so that the mushrooms and foaming spittle run down her chin to bib out onto the front of her dress. I rise from my chair and curl on her lap in the cloud of scent from the mushrooms—and more than that, the smells of piss and shit from her clothes and the smells of her decaying teeth and blood from her gums. The scent of her scalp and her sweat, her makeup. I taste it all. I suck it from the front of her dress and wake hungry and longing for home. 

In that moment of waking, I must cry out, because Jason pulls me close and says, “You are home. You’re home.” He shushes me like a baby. The room smells of lavender carpet powder and lilacs from outside the window. It smells false, not a home at all.

After Monday yoga, I stay for another, faster class at the gym because I’m meeting friends and want to be able to order whatever coffee I want, but then when the coffee comes, it is a weak syrup I can’t begin to drink. Sal and Mary’s conversation strikes me so flat, I can’t pretend to be interested. I stare out the window past the traffic to the foothills while they talk, making myself more and more angry. 

Am I seething because they don’t notice that I’m not pretending to be interested today? Because they never noticed I was always pretending before? I don’t know. I’m weary and can’t stay longer. I rise and go, tipping the full cup into the garbage can on the way out.

“Not feeling well?” calls Sal, but I don’t turn back. 

It’s the kind of aberrance that might have brought out stark concern in Dr. Emory. He might have come over to my chair. We’d have spent the session plumbing the depths of my reasoning for it. 

I did nothing so dramatic while in his care, but there were little things over the years—of course there were. He’d show his concern and make me really think on why I’d done these things. He’d give me a way to do better. He always made me better. 

Watson-Newcamp wants to see me get worse. 

I think all week of what I’ll say. How to present this moment in the coffee shop? How to explain myself? By the time the meeting comes, there’s more to tell and no clear way to tell it, so I go back to the past instead. Lost in the woods, making a sad little fire at the new camp, bedding down. The band of loud merry ne’er-do-wells tumbling into camp, drunk or stoned, I can’t say. Seven or eight of them or more. The old woman with the long black hair they called Grandma and the younger adults, one or maybe two children. They surrounded us. At first it was just teasing, but you could see the alarm in Dad and Abbie’s faces.

“Teasing?” says Watson-Newcamp. Framed in the blue of the window like an icon, she strikes me as especially smug today. 

I say, waving away her concern, “I think they were making fun of our clothes. A couple of them were sort of grabbing Abbie, saying something about her figure, you know. They were wasted.”

“And Ben?” says Watson-Newcamp. 

Oh, don’t you know? Ben was one of them. He brought us out there on purpose. 

“Ben tried to be the man. Dad certainly wasn’t going to. He’d been out of his element from the moment we left the ice-cream place. Ben asked what we could do for them. He stayed calm.” 

There’s so much I can’t say after this, but I say, “We’ve gotten to the part I never remember well. There are just . . . flickers after that.” 

“Flickers?” 

“Just some of the gestures—you know? —of a struggle there in the new camp. And the next thing I remember well was when I was alone in the forest, looking for things to eat. I had escaped them—I expected I’d run into the arms of a policeman somehow, but of course that didn’t happen. We might have been close to a road, but I ran away from it into wilderness. I ate berries at first, but they didn’t hold. I ate bear scat. It didn’t matter. I ate a fish I found by the bank of a creek so rotten it was . . . like a liquid.” My mouth rushes with water. I’ve said all of this before, can say it without thinking. 

I keep going with my wilderness adventures. How I ate, how I kept from freezing when the autumn came. The survival tales are everyone’s favorite part. 

I remember much more than I can say. It isn’t just flickers. Dad and Abbie begged for their lives at the last. When the people holding the knives to their throats let them go, each of them, they didn’t make a grab for me. They ran, and we all went silent for a time listening to them crash through the forest. I sat, stunned and waiting for death, in the circle with all of the bad people. They built up the fire and passed around jars of the same murky liquor they’d forced Dad and Abbie to drink earlier.

One of the children was just about my size. She wore a long dress and had long, tangled hair hanging all around her shoulders. She had been looking at me from across the fire, but when the liquor began to flow and the laughing came louder, she came to sit close on my right-hand side. “Just take a little,” she whispered. “It won’t hurt you.” She smiled. She seemed nice, and so when the old woman pressed the jar to my lips, I didn’t fight her. I took a sip and let it sit like fire in my mouth. Didn’t yield to the temptation to spit it back at her, didn’t cry. I stared into the old woman’s face as the liquor mixed with my spit, and then I swallowed it as slowly as I could. 

Their voices, already so loud, rose with energy. They were cheering me. “A tough one, there,” said one, and someone said it would be a pity to see me wasted. 

“Ah, she’s cute, let’s keep her,” said a wild-looking woman with tangled hair like the little girl’s. I noticed Ben at that moment because the woman was sitting on his lap. She turned her beautiful face around to kiss him, and his hands grasped like claws into her back.

I noticed then that over her dress, the old woman wore a flowered windbreaker just like the new one Mom had bought. One of the men wore my Grandpa’s new hiking boots. And I knew just like that they were dead. 

The liquor was not just liquor, of course. Grandma always put a little something in there, something from the woods or something from a bottle. She was no purist. 

Taste of it. Taste it. Just take a taste. That was what she always told you. It didn’t matter what it was. 

The little girl to my left took a sip and passed the jar along. Her hair was so pretty, all clean and trimmed at the ends like a doll’s. “See, your daddy will be all right,” I whispered to her, but she shook her head. He had drunk a lot of it. The big girl maybe not too much, but the daddy, yes, he’d drunk and drunk. 

The consultation room comes into focus once more. Am I still speaking of being lost in the woods and all those things I ate? I feel my mouth has kept moving up until just now, but I am not sure what’s come out. Watson-Newcamp looks sleepy. A cloud passes. The light behind her brightens, so I look away. 

“And why do you think you’ve been eating these things recently?” she says. 

“Excuse me?” I say. I’m stunned, don’t remember telling her of anything recent. 

“And the incident at the coffee shop? What do you think that’s about? Though honestly, it worries me less than what you’ve said about Simon.” She’s not sleepy after all. She’s only trying to mask a high state of interest. She’s practically on the edge of her seat now. 

What have I said about Simon? I’m not sure. 

“I’m not feeling well,” I say. “I feel like I might have a fever.” 

“I believe we’re making some progress here,” she says, edging closer. 

“I need to be getting home. I’m not feeling at all well,” I say.

Her eyes are dark mirrors. I see myself in them, small and frail. I look away. 

“You said a moment ago that you were tired of your husband and child. I think this is something we need to. . .”

“I’m sorry,” I say, taking up my purse. 

I am in the hall, on the step. I am in the car. No one’s following me out the door. Of course they’re not. I am a nice lady in a fine little green car, driving home to my beloved son and my husband. The day is over-bright, but the polarized lenses help. I could make this drive in my sleep. 

I am in the rattling van with the others. Someone strikes a lighter over and over beside me. The beautiful woman still sits on Ben’s lap, only the circle of people is so close now that her foot touches mine. 

My head is in the little girl’s lap. She strokes my hair. 

“Pretty, like a doll,” she says. 

Her head is in my lap. I stroke her pretty hair. I always wanted to be a little girl like this one. She smells of vanilla and strawberry, at least the top part of her does. Her clothes are clean except for the crotch and leg of her jeans where she pissed herself earlier, but it will dry. Her jeans have white and yellow flowers embroidered on the pockets. I see them when the lighter flashes. I’ve never had anything like them. My own legs are bare and filthy. 

“I love her,” I say. I don’t think anyone hears. 

Grandma drives. She focuses on the road, but some of the others are murmuring about the little girl. What to do with her, where to leave her. 

“She’s sick,” says Grandma with a note of disgust. 

She is. A little pink vomit leaks out onto my knee. I taste of it.

“She’s mine. I’ll take care of her.” I say it so fiercely that when we stop at the station wagon, we do not leave her there with her mom and the old man. People get out to see what there is left to take, and I stroke her clean hair. I tell her I’ll take care of her. 

All the long ride home, that’s what I do. I stroke her head like Grandma does when I’m sick, which isn’t so often anymore. Tasting things all the time makes you stronger. 

When the van rattles to a stop and the door slides open, Ben takes the girl from me. He carries her up the stairs and lays her in my bed. I get in beside her, feeling her heat soak into the covers. 

Our house is cold and dark as always. It’s someone else’s house we’re using for now. The people are somewhere downstairs. I don’t go near them because Grandma might tell me to taste of them. 

Everyone’s tired after a party, so while the whole house sleeps, I bring the girl water and biscuits. I take care of her. 

She tells me her story over the days and weeks. She speaks weakly of her dolls, her little friends, what school is going to be like. We move to a smaller house and then to a kind of barn. We go back to our real home, which is sprawling and damp. The ivy went mad when we were gone and broke the basement windows. The kittens had time to be born and go wild. We stay at our home for a time and then we go back in the van, drive into another forest. 

 The girl always asks me to call her aunt Kara. She tells me, over the days and weeks, all about how nice things were where she was from. She doesn’t care so much to go back because her dad and her mom won’t be there, but she thinks maybe Aunt Kara wants her. Or wants to know where she is. 

I make her taste of things. It’s the only way to get stronger, and she does get stronger, at first. 

I can’t keep driving. I’m crying so hard, I have to pull to the shoulder. In the rearview for an instant, it’s Grandma’s face I see. I see red lipstick all over my lips and teeth, taste it. I get out and heave and try to puke, but it isn’t happening. 

I have a strong urge to taste of something and pop a piece of gravel into my mouth to dull the hunger. 

Is it true, what Watson-Newcamp said? I’m tired of Jason and Simon? It doesn’t feel true. They are so much finer than I am . . . and so much weaker. I take care of them. It’s all I’m here to do, now. There was a time when I needed caring for, but now I’m here for them. I need to make them stronger. I need to let them taste, but only a little bit at a time. That’s how you grow stronger, just a tiny taste at first and then a little more. 

Except that’s what I did with the girl, and it didn’t work. 

I’m crouched down by the side of the car now, bawling. I don’t know quite what’s gotten me so distressed. 

It’s strange, the scenarios that go through your mind when you’re upset. I think Dr. Emory might happen to drive by in his long gray car and see me here—he lives not far away, after all—and we might speak right here by the side of the road. He might tell me again how strong I am. It might be enough. 

Or I could leave the car and walk to the edge of the city, up the foothills and into the desert, past the desert to the mountains, tasting of all sorts of things along the way. I might look for them. They must be somewhere out there. Ben, Leslie and all—maybe not Grandma anymore, but some of the others. 

If I ate the right thing, maybe I could see them as in a dream. It would feel like a dream, but it wouldn’t be. Grandma said there were things you could eat that would tell you things and others that would let you travel, things that would send you right through time itself. Things that would make you trade bodies with someone, things that would wake the dead. These things exist; they’re hard to find but worth the search. If I ate the right thing, my people could show me where they are now, or it could let them come to me. 

No, that can’t happen. He’s mine, I think. Simon. You can’t have him. He’s weak. I need to make him stronger before he can come with us. I think, not for the first time, of a squirrel I saw rotting on the road a few blocks from home. It was still there this morning. 

No, he’s staying soft and sweet as he is right now. We’re not going anywhere. We’re happy in our bland, clean world. 

My thinking branches off in all these directions. It’s a matter of not knowing what to do and not having someone like Dr. Emory nearby to tell me. 

What finally decides me is this: I think of the little girl on her last night. I think of how she longed for cinnamon and strawberries and cream, how her eyes widened with longing when I described the pretty little house I lived in as a child, just like the one I live in now. I can get to it—right now, I can get to it—if only I can breathe and settle and get back in the car. 

My little house smelling of lavender and powder, all the fresh, healthy things in the fridge. Clean sheets, nice pretty clothes. My little boy—still a little boy, really, all soft with his glossy hair smelling of grass and sunshine. I’ll love all of this for her sake. 

I imagine saying it to Dr. Emory, imagine the pride in his face and the dark books all around us. I’ll try. One more time, I’ll try.

The post PseudoPod 704: Resilience appeared first on PseudoPod.

May 22 2020

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PseudoPod 703: Dream House

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“Dream House” was first published in Gothic Lovecraft in 2016

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Dream House

By Orrin Grey

It was the last night of the Festival, and we were all sitting around one of the long tables out behind the Moon and Sixpence. It was cold enough that my feet were freezing and my hands were shoved into the pockets of my jacket when not gesturing or picking up a drink. Above us, a suitably gibbous moon dipped in-and-out behind clouds that would’ve otherwise been invisible.

There were still a couple of movies playing, so the back patio wasn’t too crowded yet, but I’d talked Simon out of watching Curse of the Crimson Altar on account of it being five minutes of awesome and an hour-and-change of people walking around in dark houses, so we were staking out the table ’til the Festival ended and the last movies let out. Simon was telling me about some French movie he’d seen this year that came off as a poor man’s John Carpenter, one that seemed to get worse every time he mentioned it.

As the table gradually filled up, the conversation twisted and turned—as conversations like that, in places like those, always do—and somehow or other we got on the subject of Lovecraft in old TV shows. Maybe there was a panel on it, or someone was suggesting one for next year. They’d showed the Stuart Gordon “Dreams in the Witch House” that year, and Nick mentioned that “Pickman’s Model” episode of Night Gallery, which I’d always loved. I told him it was my favorite adaptation of the story, and someone else—probably Ross—agreed. Sooner or later, of course, somebody brought up Dream House. 

There wasn’t anyone at the table who hadn’t seen at least a few episodes—some back when it was still on the air, most of us on reruns on Saturday afternoon when we were kids, or on those two-episode VHS packs that floated around video stores for a while—and nobody had much that was nice to say about it, beyond that it had “potential,” the faint praise with which we damn things that we want to like but can’t quite. Mostly, we all agreed that it barely counted as Lovecraftian, for all its swinging and missing in that direction, but then a voice brought up the lost episodes.

I didn’t recognize the woman doing the talking, but by then that was true of about half the people around the table. She was sitting on the other side of Jesse, and I thought I remembered her coming back with him from one of his trips to the bar for drinks. The corner she was sitting in was the darkest on the patio, her back against the bulbous tree the broke up the back fence line. Her features were mostly lost to shadow, but she was smoking a cigarette, and when she took a pull the glow from the cherry would flare up enough to illuminate the edges of her face, which seemed a little worn and creased, not that any of us were looking our best in the dim patio lights at the dregs of the Festival. I asked around afterward, but nobody seemed to know her name, or remember seeing her anyplace else during the weekend.

When she mentioned the lost episodes, someone at the other end of the table laughed and said something like, “Yeah, they’re probably great, since nobody’s ever seen them.” She let out a sigh, the cherry on her cigarette bobbing like the bouncing ball in an old sing-along. “They’re around,” she said. “They were on YouTube for a while, but they got pulled down.”

“The story goes,” Cody said, because of course, if anybody knew the story, it was going to be Cody, “that they used to circulate them on recorded tapes, back in the pre-Internet days. Some kid supposedly watched them and then cut up his family and asphyxiated himself with a garbage bag taped around his head. That got more press than the show ever did, even if it’s probably not true.”

“Early days Marilyn-Manson-made-me-do-it stuff,” someone else said, nodding, remembering the legend now. “Wonder if anyone ever got sued over that.”

The initial speaker shook her head, ground out her cigarette on the tabletop so that the shadows swallowed her face again. “Naw,” she said, “nobody ever got sued, because there wasn’t anybody left.”

The next morning, most everybody besides the locals flew out, and I drove up with Simon to spend a couple of days in Seattle before heading home. We stayed up late watching The Lurking Fear and Virgin Witch in his apartment, but I couldn’t get the conversation about Dream House out of my head. I’d seen maybe seven or eight episodes over the years—it used to play late at night on one of the channels that we got when I was growing up, after Renegade and Kung Fu but before Beauty and the Beast with Ron Perlman, so I usually didn’t stay up late enough to catch it.

Now, though, my curiosity was piqued, so I looked it up on Wikipedia, skimmed through episode synopses and cast lists until I came to a headline that simply said “Tragedy” in big black letters.

It seemed that a fire had broken out on set during principal photography. All told, ten people died as a result of the blaze. Investigators expected arson, but according to Wikipedia no arrests were ever made in connection with the disaster, which was partially responsible for the show folding after shooting less than a season worth of episodes. A couple of the main actors died in the fire, or at the hospital later as a result of smoke inhalation, including Judy Becker, the woman who played Jennifer Cristain/Lady Jenny, the show’s main star.

Digging a little deeper, I found that our nameless Dream House fan hadn’t been wrong. Nobody involved in the show was still alive. A few people who had played bit parts in individual episodes were still around, some of them had even gone on to have real acting careers, and the actress who played a little girl in the third episode was going to be in a movie opposite Ryan Gosling next year. But anyone who had played a recurring character or been involved in writing, directing, or shooting the show was dead. Not one had survived the show’s cancellation by more than five years.

The reasons for those that I could find reasons for spanned the range of typical Hollywood causes of death—from cancers to car accidents, drug overdoses and suicides, and at least one disquieting mass-homicide about which I could find almost no detailed information online. I was reminded of the rumors about the various fates of the people involved in making Manos—famously the “worst” movie ever shown on MST3k, though for that particular plum my pick might have to go to Hobgoblins. This, though, seemed a little more real, the tragedies and mysteries a little easier to verify.

Before I closed my laptop and turned in for the night, I sent an email to Shawn, asking him about the so-called “lost episodes.” He’d helped me track down hard-to-find flicks for my Vault of Secrets column before, so I figured if I knew anyone who could find the Dream House episodes, it’d be him.

I didn’t hear back from Shawn until after I’d gotten back to Kansas, but the email he finally sent me had links to two of the “lost episodes” in it. “The most innocuous ones, I’m told,” he said. “There’s supposed to be one more, the really bad one, but I couldn’t find hide nor hair of it. Not even a plot synopsis. Seems like it disappeared into the wild blue yonder.”

It took a few days of post-trip recovery and catching up on work before I managed to queue up the episodes. I watched them downstairs in my office, on my laptop, with all the lights out and my headphones on. They looked like shit and sounded worse, and had obviously been recorded by hooking two VCRs together. The picture swam and shifted, like when we used to try to pirate pay channels on my friend’s cable when we were kids. One minute the dialogue was so muted that I couldn’t make it out, the next I was snatching my headphones off to keep from being deafened.

The first episode seemed like a pretty standard series entry. It focused on the Jennifer/Lady Jenny character, one actress playing both the young woman who came to open Dream House back up and turn it into a bed and breakfast, and the young wife of the slave owner who ran it back when it was still a plantation. It was the main thing I remembered from late nights watching the series as a kid, lots of flashing back and forth between the past and the present. It got a lot of mileage out of that portrait-in-the-entryway-looks-exactly-like-me trope that Gothic movies love so much.

In this episode, Jennifer was having nightmares about Lady Jenny’s life, and when she woke in the mornings, the sheets all mussed alluringly, her bare feet and the hem of her nightdress were dirty. As the episode progressed, she found damp, shapeless footprints on the stairs of the house, and saw bulbous shadows moving along the wall. In my notes I wrote down, “Fungus people?” and circled it. Eventually, the episode culminated in what was maybe supposed to be another dream sequence. A door opened in the corner of Jennifer’s bedroom, spilling out a weird greenish light. She rose from the bed and crossed the room, though a close-up shot of her face made it very clear that her eyes were staring, vacant and asleep.

On the other side of the secret door she descended a spiraling hidden staircase until she came to a basement. There, half-glimpsed figures awaited her, surrounding something that I couldn’t make out in the murky darkness of the terrible video transfer. A shape that might have been a man knelt on the ground before her, and she was suddenly holding a knife. The scene cut to darkness, like a commercial break, and when it came back up it was daylight, birds were singing in the trees outside, and Jennifer was lying safe in her bed, but with those same tell-tale dirty feet.

The second episode introduced a new character, a reporter named Wayland whose grandfather had been a slave on the plantation. Wayland was planning to write a book about the strange things that went on at Dream House back in the day, and to that end he convinced modern-day Jennifer to rent him a room, even though the bed and breakfast didn’t seem to be technically up and running yet. He snuck around the place a bit, saw some ominous stuff, and found a secret graveyard out behind the main house, but then the episode got really weird.

A door opened into Wayland’s room while he was sleeping, spilling that same green light as in the previous episode. A woman came out of the door. It looked like she might have been played by the same actress who played Jennifer/Lady Jenny, but there was something wrong with her face, and the picture was too low-res for me to tell for sure. Whoever she was, she was pale as death, and she had what looked like a man with her, albeit on the end of a leash and walking on all fours. It was either wearing some kind of suit—a bondage suit, on TV in the 60s?—or it was supposed to be an ape or something, because it was so dark that it blended into the shadows.

Wayland got up and followed the woman down the stairs, and in the middle of the same dirt-floored basement that Jennifer had ended up in during the other episode, he found an idol of green stone. It stood roughly the height of a man, and was carved in the shape of a crouching figure, its head spreading out into, well, tentacles, I guess, though their angles were sharper than that word usually calls to mind. There was a noise on the soundtrack like clanking chains, and then Wayland started to scream and the episode cut to black.

That would’ve probably been the end of it, if I hadn’t hit a dry spell. I finished catching up on the work that I’d missed while I was in Portland, and there was nothing waiting on the other side. Just doldrums, and streaming movies on Netflix. I knew that I should take advantage of the slow days to chip into my to-read pile or work on some of my own projects, but I just found myself feeling listless, re-watching old episodes of The Simpsons and drifting.

I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t gotten the second email from Shawn. I guess he hadn’t been able to leave well enough alone either, and sometime in the midst of my fallow period I got a message from him saying that he’d tracked down the place where they shot the exteriors for Dream House on one of those websites that show you the shooting locations of movies and TV shows.

The website showed a screen grab from the show, and below it, a photograph of the actual house from the same angle. It said that some fans of the show had bought the house back in the late 90s and actually turned it into a bed and breakfast for real. They even kept the sign from the show: DREAM HOUSE, Est. 18–. Which, of course, those of us who had seen even a few episodes knew that while the house itself may have been built in 18–, the basement was much older. Hewn from the earth, not by the hands of white settlers, nor by the native tribes who once lived on the land, but by some older race. Knowing Lovecraft, probably serpent men or something.

At the bottom was the address, and a link to the website of the bed and breakfast. Before the end of the day, I had called and booked a room.

I told Grace it was a research trip, that I figured I could get something substantial out of this whole “lost episodes,” visit-to-the-actual-house thing. Something I could maybe sell to Rue Morgue or some website that paid more than $50 an article. Maybe I even believed it at the time, or maybe I knew better, even then. “If nothing else,” Grace said, “it’ll be a tax deduction.”

She almost went with me, but then her work signed on a big new client and that meant long weeks that she couldn’t skip, so I ended up going alone. That’s maybe the only good thing that came out of any of this, that she wasn’t able to come with me. That she, at least, was spared.

Driving to the place took a couple of days, and I spent the night in a nice suite at a Holiday Inn watching old episodes of Night Gallery and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In a story, there would have been a rerun of Dream House on, or at least the “Pickman’s Model” episode of Night Gallery, but in real life nobody shows Dream House anymore, and the Night Gallery episode maybe had something to do with a lady vampire on a house boat, I was mostly asleep already by the time it came on.

That night I had a dream where I stood outside the front of the bed and breakfast. Someone had spraypainted over the sign, adding the letters “s in the witch” between the words “dream” and “house.” My eye was a camera lens taking a time-lapse photo, and I watched the clouds scud across the sky too quickly, the light changing in jerky, stop-motion switches.

In the dream there was a blink, and I was looking at the house from behind and above. It looked strangely innocuous, like a dollhouse, and between me and it there was a field where cars were parked, car after car, from different ages. Old Packard’s and 50s convertibles with big fins. Nature was gradually erasing their distinguishing features, sun and time scouring the paint from their hoods as kudzu grew up around them, devouring them as it would one day devour everything else.

I woke up feeling unrested, and almost turned the car around then and there, but the website for Dream House had said there was a fee for last-minute cancellations, and I was already so close.

By the time I pulled up in front of the house it was the middle of the afternoon. The sunlight was golden and soft, and everything looked almost exactly like the opening titles of the show. The golden light, the old plantation house with its white paint and columns. I could almost hear that tinkling theme song playing somewhere off in the distance.

When I walked in through the front doors, I expected to find a big painting of Lady Jenny looking down at me, but of course, that had been filmed on a set, and instead I walked in to find the front desk with a painting hanging above it showing some kind of hunting scene, something brought over from the Old World.

The woman behind the counter looked like the mother from a TV show about a pioneer family, her black hair just beginning to go iron-gray at the roots. She wore a blue dress with white flowers—magnolias, perhaps, which would seem appropriate.

She introduced herself as Irene and had me sign in, and I asked her a few questions about the inn, and about the show. It turned out that she and her husband had bought it from the fans who’d originally converted it after they’d gone under, and she wasn’t a fan of the show, though she knew a little. “Some of it was shot right here,” she told me, “at least that’s what they say. I can give you her room, if you want.”

I didn’t have to ask to which “her” she was referring, and said that yes, I’d love to have Lady Jenny’s room, if it was available. She asked if I needed any help with my bags, but I declined. Years of attending conventions had taught me how to pack light.

My room was, in fact, Lady Jenny’s, down to most of the furniture, though the knick-knacks on the shelf were different. There was the dressing mirror where Lady Jenny combed her long brown hair. Irene told me that some of the scenes of the bedroom were shot at the house, while others were shot on a sound stage somewhere else. I had the disorienting feeling that comes with walking into a place you know intimately but have never visited; a feeling, I imagine, that is unique to the generations who have grown up with TV and movies.

The room had a window that faced the back of the house, and when Irene left I peered out beyond the lacy curtains, holding my breath in case I was presented with a field of rusting cars. Instead, I saw only picturesque trees strung with Spanish moss. I resolved to go exploring tomorrow, and spent the night setting up my laptop, typing up notes from the road, and responding to emails and Facebook messages. I called Grace and told her goodnight before falling asleep to black-and-white Dragnet episodes on the little TV that they’d archaically stuck in the corner of the room.

In my dream it was like I was a camera again, mounted on a tripod in the corner, watching myself sleep. I saw a door open in the wall, the wainscoting and Victorian wallpaper sliding apart to reveal a gap, first of darkness, then filling with a familiar green light. I watched as I rose from my bed and followed the light through the door and down the stairs, my dream-camera coming unmoored and drifting over my shoulder.

The basement was clearer in the dream than it had ever been in the show, the shadows sharp and in high definition, the blackness crisp and hard-edged. Shapes waited for me in those shadows, figures hooded and cowled, shambling things and squirming things that made me think of the rubber suited ghoul from that Night Gallery episode, or the Toho mushroom people in Matango. I wanted to look closer, to peer into the shadows and pick out the comforting fakeness of their suits, the seams and zippers, but I was a camera, and I had no free will, so I saw them only peripherally, my gaze fixed ahead.

What I could see were the manacles and chains affixed to the stone columns that held up the ceiling. Generations of blood had seeped into the earthen floor and changed its color forever, and I thought of Jennifer’s dirty feet in the lost episode, the rusty red that hadn’t translated well to the color palette of 60s TV.

In the center of the basement was a statue that I had seen before, its bulk almost human but hunched like a toad up on its haunches, its face a mass of angular tentacles. It was limned in the same sickly green illumination that engulfed me, a light that seemed to sweat from the statue’s surface. Next to it stood a figure draped in a black robe, a figure that I recognized as Lady Jenny, though her features were askew, like a mask poorly fitted over some shifting form beneath. Beside her crouched a darker shape which she held on the end of a chain, and when she spoke it wasn’t with the voice of Judy Becker. It was the voice of an old drunk, dying from tuberculosis. The voice of a thousand worms, suddenly given the power of speech.

I woke with her words on my tongue, though I couldn’t fit them to human vocalization, couldn’t make any sense of them, even to write them down. I’ll spare you any Lovecraftian attempt at approximating the sounds, which began to die in my memory even as I scrambled for pen and paper.

Irene confirmed my suspicions that many of the rooms in Dream House—my own included—had once had servant’s entrances that let onto back stairways winding down to the kitchens and, of course, even the larder in the basement. The doors themselves had been lost to one of the building’s renovations, but some of the stairs remained buried behind the walls, and she confirmed, when I pointed to the spot where my dream door had been, that it was about where the servant’s entrance appeared in old photographs of the room.

I asked her about the basement, but she said that most of it had been filled up and bricked over since before her time there. “If there’s any way into it,” she smiled, “I’ve never seen it.”

So here’s the lightning round bonus question: When you’re dealing with things that exist outside of our normal conception of either space or time, is a dream sequence really any less real than anything else? I think we both know the answer to that one.

That morning, I went out to walk the grounds. I picked my way along a trampled-down path that led around the side of the house, past the trees with their almost staged moss, and across a footbridge that spanned a small stream. The sun was shining, but there was no birdsong, and the farther I walked the more I began to notice kudzu creeping up the trunks of the trees, crowding in on the sides of the path.

I was almost unsurprised when I rounded the corner and saw the rusted shell of the first car. It wasn’t a field, like it had been in my dream. Trees grew up among them, hiding them from view from the air or the windows of the house, but here they were, car after car, when you could find them among the foliage run riot. What’s more, I’d paid attention on the walk, and I knew that I’d taken more or less the same path that Wayland had in the lost episode, when he’d stumbled upon the secret cemetery.

I didn’t get immediately back into my car and drive away, leaving all my stuff up in the room, like I would have encouraged a character to do had I been watching a movie. It wasn’t stupidity that drove me back inside—remember that, the next time you’re watching a scary movie and someone goes down into the basement—it was curiosity, maybe the only emotion in our repertoire that’s capable of overpowering our fear.

Inside the house, I scrutinized the painting on the wall behind the front desk, looking for subtle changes. I asked Irene, casually, about her husband, and she said that he was around there someplace, that he usually tended the grounds while she kept up the house itself. She looked straight at me as she spoke, her eyes brown and deep as wells, and I thought of the scene in In the Mouth of Madness, the kindly old lady behind the counter with her husband shackled to her leg, the bloody ax waiting out in the greenhouse.

I went upstairs, packed my bags, and checked out of my room a day early. I drove home without stopping except to fuel up and buy sodas, deleted the lost Dream House episodes from my computer, kissed my wife, and lived happily ever after. But of course you and I both know, dear reader, that’s not how these stories end. I called yesterday to make my second reservation at Dream House. Irene didn’t sound at all surprised to hear from me.

I’ll kiss Grace goodbye one last time—I wonder if she’ll know, if she’ll try to stop me, but I’m beyond stopping now. I’ll return to the Dream House, and when I get there I’ll drive around the side, along the road I’ve never taken, to the parking lot that I shouldn’t know about, and pull my rental car up alongside the other rusting hulks that lie beneath the kudzu. I’ll collect my key from the front desk, and I’ll go up to my room—the same room as before—and I’ll lie down on the bed and go to sleep, perchance to dream.

The post PseudoPod 703: Dream House appeared first on PseudoPod.

May 15 2020

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PseudoPod 702: At the Farmhouse

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 “At the Farmhouse” first appeared in Hutchinson’s Magazine, March 1923

At the Farmhouse

by E.F. Benson

The dusk of a November day was falling fast when John Aylsford came out of his lodging in the cobbled street and started to walk briskly along the road which led eastwards by the shore of the bay. He had been at work while the daylight served him, and now, when the gathering darkness weaned him from his easel, he was accustomed to go out for air and exercise and cover half a dozen miles before he returned to his solitary supper.

To-night there were but few folk abroad, and those scudded along before the strong south-westerly gale which had roared and raged all day, or, leaning forward, beat their way against it. No fishing-boats had put forth on that maddened sea, but had lain moored behind the quay-wall, tossing uneasily with the backwash of the great breakers that swept by the pier-head. The tide was low now, and they rested on the sandy beach, black blots against the smooth wet surface which sombrely reflected the last flames in the west. The sun had gone down in a wrack of broken and flying clouds, angry and menacing with promise of a wild night to come.

For many days past, at this hour John Aylsford had started eastwards for his tramp along the rough coast road by the bay. The last high tide had swept shingle and sand over sections of it, and fragments of seaweed, driven by the wind, bowled along the ruts. The heavy boom of the breakers sounded sullenly in the dusk, and white towers of foam appearing and disappearing showed how high they leaped over the reefs of rock beyond the headland. For half a mile or so, slanting himself against the gale he pursued this road, then turned up a narrow muddy lane sunk deep between the banks on either side of it. It ran steeply uphill, dipped down again, and joined the main road inland. Having arrived at the junction, John Aylsford went eastwards no more, but turned his steps to the west, arriving, half an hour after he had set out, on the top of the hill above the village he had quitted, though five minutes’ ascent would have taken him from his lodgings to the spot where he now stood looking down on the scattered lights below him. The wind had blown all wayfarers indoors, and now in front of him the road that crossed this high and desolate tableland, sprinkled here and there with lonely cottages and solitary farms, lay empty and greyly glimmering in the wind-swept darkness, not more than faintly visible.

Many times during this past month had John Aylsford made this long detour, starting eastwards from the village and coming back by a wide circuit, and now, as on these other occasions, he paused in the black shelter of the hedge through which the wind hissed and whistled, crouching there in the shadow as if to make sure that none had followed him, and that the road in front lay void of passengers, for he had no mind to be observed by any on these journeyings. And as he paused he let his hate blaze up, warming him for the work the accomplishment of which alone could enable him to recapture any peace or profit from life. To-night he was determined to release himself from the millstone which for so many years had hung round his neck, drowning him in bitter waters. From long brooding over the idea of the deed, he had quite ceased to feel any horror of it. The death of that drunken slut was not a matter for qualms or uneasiness; the world would be well rid of her, and he more than well.

No spark of tenderness for the handsome fisher-girl who once had been his model and for twenty years had been his wife pierced the blackness of his purpose. Just here it was that he had seen her first when on a summer holiday he had lodged with a couple of friends in the farmhouse towards which his way now lay. She was coming up the hill with the late sunset gilding her face, and, breathing quickly from the ascent, had leaned on the wall close by with a smile and a glance for the young man. She had sat to him, and the autumn brought the sequel to the summer in his marriage. He had bought from her uncle the little farmhouse where he had lodged, adding to its modest accommodation a studio and a bedroom above it, and there he had seen the flicker of what had never been love, die out, and over the cold ashes of its embers the poisonous lichen of hatred spread fast. Early in their married life she had taken to drink, and had sunk into a degradation of soul and body that seemed bottomless, dragging him with her, down and down, in the grip of a force that was hardly human in its malignity.

Often during the wretched years that followed he had tried to leave her; he had offered to settle the farm on her and make adequate provision for her, but she had clung to the possession of him, not, it would seem, from any affection for him, but for a reason exactly opposite, namely, that her hatred of him fed and glutted itself on the sight of his ruin. It was as if, in obedience to some hellish power, she set herself to spoil his life, his powers, his possibilities, by tying him to herself. And by the aid of that power, so sometimes he had thought, she enforced her will on him, for, plan as he might to cut the whole dreadful business and leave the wreck behind him, he had never been able to consolidate his resolve into action. There, but a few miles away, was the station from which ran the train that would bear him out of this ancient western kingdom, where the beliefs in spells and superstitions grew rank as the herbage in that soft enervating air, and set him in the dry hard light of cities. The way lay open, but he could not take it; something unseen and potent, of grim inflexibility, held him back….

He had passed no one on his way here, and satisfied now that in the darkness he could proceed without fear of being recognised if a chance wayfarer came from the direction in which he was going, he left the shelter of the hedge, and struck out into the stormy sea of that stupendous gale. Even as a man in the grip of imminent death sees his past life spread itself out in front of him for his final survey before the book is closed, so now, on the brink of the new life from which the deed on which he was determined alone separated him, John Aylsford, as he battled his advance through this great tempest, turned over page after page of his own wretched chronicles, feeling already strangely detached from them; it was as if he read the sordid and enslaved annals of another, wondering at them, half-pitying, half-despising him who had allowed himself to be bound so long in this ruinous noose.

Yes; it had been just that, a noose drawn ever tighter round his neck, while he choked and struggled all unavailingly. But there was another noose which should very soon now be drawn rapidly and finally tight, and the drawing of that in his own strong hands would free him. As he dwelt on that for a moment, his fingers stroked and patted the hank of whipcord that lay white and tough in his pocket. A noose, a knot drawn quickly taut, and he would have paid her back with justice and swifter mercy for the long strangling which he had suffered.

Voluntarily and eagerly at the beginning had he allowed her to slip the noose about him, for Ellen Trenair’s beauty in those days, so long past and so everlastingly regretted, had been enough to ensnare a man. He had been warned at the time, by hint and half-spoken suggestion, that it was ill for a man to mate with a girl of that dark and ill-famed family, or for a woman to wed a boy in whose veins ran the blood of Jonas Trenair, once Methodist preacher, who learned on one All-Hallows’ Eve a darker gospel than he had ever preached before. What had happened to the girls who had married into that dwindling family, now all but extinct? One, before her marriage was a year old, had gone off her head, and now, a withered and ancient crone, mowed and gibbered about the streets of the village, picking garbage from the gutter and munching it in her toothless jaws. Another, Ellen’s own mother, had been found hanging from the banister of her stairs, stark and grim. Then there was young Frank Pencarris, who had wed Ellen’s sister. He had sunk into an awful melancholy, and sat tracing on sheets of paper the visions that beset his eyes, headless shapes, and foaming mouths, and the images of the spawn of hell…. John Aylsford, in those early days, had laughed to scorn these old-wife tales of spells and sorceries: they belonged to ages long past, whereas fair Ellen Trenair was of the lovely present, and had lit desire in his heart which she alone could assuage. He had no use, in the brightness of her eye, for such shadows and superstitions; her beams dispelled them.

Bitter and black as midnight had his enlightenment been, darkening through dubious dusks till the murk of the pit itself enveloped him. His laughter at the notion that in this twentieth century spells and sorceries could survive, grew silent on his lips. He had seen the cattle of a neighbour who had offended one whom it was wiser not to cross, dwindle and pine, though there were rich pastures for their grazing, till the rib-bones stuck out like the timbers of stranded wrecks. He had seen the spring on another farm run dry at lambing-time because the owner, sceptic like himself, had refused that bounty, which all prudent folk paid to the wizard of Mareuth, who, like Ellen, was of the blood of Jonas Trenair. From scorn and laughter he had wavered to an uneasy wonder, and from wonder his mind had passed to the conviction that there were powers occult and terrible which strove in darkness and prevailed, secrets and spells that could send disease on man and beast, dark incantations, known to few, which could maim and cripple, and of these few his wife was one. His reason revolted, but some conviction, deeper than reason, held its own. To such a view it seemed that the deed he contemplated was no crime, but rather an act of obedience to the ordinance “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” And the sense of detachment was over that, even as over the memories that oozed up in his mind. Somebody—not he—who had planned everything very carefully was in the next hour going to put an end to his bondage.

So the years had passed, he floundering ever deeper in the slough into which he was plunged, out of which while she lived he could never emerge. For the last year, she, wearying of his perpetual presence at the farm, had allowed him to take a lodging in the village. She did not loose her hold over him, for the days were few on which she did not come with demands for a handful of shillings to procure her the raw spirits which alone could slake her thirst. Sometimes as he sat at work there in the north room looking on to the small garden-yard, she would come lurching up the path, with her bloated crimson face set on the withered neck, and tap at his window with fingers shrivelled like bird’s claws. Body and limbs were no more than bones over which the wrinkled skin was stretched, but her face bulged monstrously with layers of fat. He would give her whatever he had about him, and if it was not enough, she would plant herself there, grinning at him and wheedling him, or with screams and curses threatening him with such fate as he had known to overtake those who crossed her will. But usually he gave her enough to satisfy her for that day and perhaps the next, for thus she would the more quickly drink herself to death. Yet death seemed long in coming….

He remembered well how first the notion of killing her came into his head, just a little seed, small as that of mustard, which lay long in barrenness. Only the bare idea of it was there, like an abstract proposition. Then imperceptibly in the fruitful darkness of his mind, it must have begun to sprout, for presently a tendril, still soft and white, prodded out into the daylight. He almost pushed it back again, for fear that she, by some divining art, should probe his purpose. But when next she came for supplies, he saw no gleam of surmise in her red-rimmed eyes, and she took her money and went her way, and his purpose put forth another leaf, and the stem of it grew sappy. All autumn through it had nourished, and grown tree-like, and fresh ideas, fresh details, fresh precautions, flocked there like building birds and made it gay with singing. He sat under the shadow of it and listened with brightening hopes to their song; never had there been such peerless melody. They knew their tunes now, there was no need for any further rehearsal.

He began to wonder how soon he would be back on the road again, with face turned from this buffeting wind, and on his way home. His business would not take him long; the central deed of it would be over in a couple of minutes, and he did not anticipate delay about the setting to work on it, for by seven o’clock of the evening, as well he knew, she was usually snoring in the oblivion of complete drunkenness, and even if she was not as far gone as that, she would certainly be incapable of any serious resistance. After that, a quarter of an hour more would finish the job, and he would leave the house secure already from any chance of detection. Night after night during these last ten days he had been up here, peering from the darkness into the lighted room where she sat, then listening for her step on the stairs as she stumbled up to bed, or hearing her snorings as she slept in her chair below. The out-house, he knew, was well stocked with paraffin; he needed no further apparatus than the whipcord and the matches he carried with him. Then back he would go along the exact route by which he had come, re-entering the village again from the eastwards, in which direction he had set out.

This walk of his was now a known and established habit; half the village during the last week or two had seen him every evening set forth along the coast road, for a tramp in the dusk when the light failed for his painting, and had seen him come back again as they hung about and smoked in the warm dusk, a couple of hours later. None knew of his detour to the main road which took him westwards again above the village and so to the stretch of bleak upland along which now he fought his way against the gale. Always round about the hour of eight he had entered the village again from the other side, and had stopped and chatted with the loiterers. To-night, no later than was usual, he would come up the cobbled road again, and give “good night” to any who lingered there outside the public-house. In this wild wind it was not likely that there would be such, and if so, no matter; he had been seen already setting forth on his usual walk by the coast of the bay, and if none outside saw him return, none could see the true chart of his walk. By eight he should be back to his supper, there would be a soused herring for him, and a cut of cheese, and the kettle would be singing on the hob for his hot whisky-toddy. He would have a keen edge for the enjoyment of them to-night; he would drink long healths to the damned and the dead. Not till to-morrow, probably, would the news of what had happened reach him, for the farmhouse lay lonely and sheltered by the wood of firs. However high might mount the beacon of its blazing, it would scarcely, screened by the tall trees, light up the western sky, and be seen from the village nestling below the steep hill-crest.

By now John Aylsford had come to the fir wood which bordered the road on the left, and, as he passed into its shelter, cut off from him the violence of the gale. All its branches were astir with the sound of some vexed, overhead sea, and the trunks that upheld them creaked and groaned in the fury of the tempest. Somewhere behind the thick scud of flying cloud the moon must have risen, for the road glimmered more visibly, and the tossing blackness of the branches was clear enough against the grey tumult overhead. Behind the tempest she rode in serene skies, and in the murderous clarity of his mind he likened himself to her. Just for half an hour more he would still grope and scheme and achieve in this hurly-burly, and then, like a balloon released, soar through the clouds and find serenity. A couple of hundred yards now would take him round the corner of the wood; from there the miry lane led from the high-road to the farm.

He hastened rather than retarded his going as he drew near, for the wood, though it roared with the gale, began to whisper to him of memories. Often in that summer before his marriage had he strayed out at dusk into it, certain that before he had gone many paces he would see a shadow flitting towards him through the firs, or hear the crack of dry twigs in the stillness. Here was their tryst; she would come up from the village with the excuse of bringing fish to the farmhouse, after the boats had come in, and deserting the high-road make a short cut through the wood. Like some distant blink of lightning the memory of those evenings quivered distantly on his mind, and he quickened his step. The years that followed had killed and buried those recollections, but who knew what stirring of corpses and dry bones might not yet come to them if he lingered there? He fingered the whipcord in his pocket, and launched out, beyond the trees, into the full fury of the gale.

The farmhouse was near now and in full view, a black blot against the clouds. A beam of light shone from an uncurtained window on the ground-floor, and the rest was dark. Even thus had he seen it for many nights past, and well knew what sight would greet him as he stole up nearer. And even so it was to-night, for there she sat in the studio he had built, betwixt table and fireplace with the bottle near her, and her withered hands stretched out to the blaze, and the huge bloated face swaying on her shoulders. Beside her to-night were the wrecked remains of a chair, and the first sight that he caught of her was to show her feeding the fire with the broken pieces of it. It had been too troublesome to bring fresh logs from the store of wood; to break up a chair was the easier task.

She stirred and sat more upright, then reached out for the bottle that stood beside her, and drank from the mouth of it. She drank and licked her lips and drank again, and staggered to her feet, tripping on the edge of the hearth-rug. For the moment that seemed to anger her, and with clenched teeth and pointing finger she mumbled at it; then once more she drank, and lurching forward, took the lamp from the table. With it in her hand she shuffled to the door, and the room was left to the flickering firelight. A moment afterwards, the bedroom window above sprang into light, an oblong of bright illumination.

As soon as that appeared he crept round the house to the door. He gently turned the handle of it, and found it unlocked. Inside was a small passage entrance, on the left of which ascended the stairs to the bedroom above the studio. All was silent there, but from where he stood he could see that the door into the bedroom was open, for a shaft of light from the lamp she had carried up with her was shed on to the landing there…. Everything was smoothing itself out to render his course most easy. Even the gale was his friend, for it would be bellows for the fire. He slipped off his shoes, leaving them on the mat, and drew the whipcord from his pocket. He made a noose in it, and began to ascend the stairs. They were well-built of seasoned oak, and no creak betrayed his advancing footfall.

At the top he paused, listening for any stir of movement within, but there was nothing to be heard but the sound of heavy breathing from the bed that lay to the left of the door and out of sight. She had thrown herself down there, he guessed, without undressing, leaving the lamp to burn itself out. He could see it through the open door already beginning to flicker; on the wall behind it were a couple of water-colours, pictures of his own, one of the little walled garden by the farm, the other of the pinewood of their tryst. Well he remembered painting them: she would sit by him as he worked with prattle and singing. He looked at them now quite detachedly; they seemed to him wonderfully good, and he envied the artist that fresh, clean skill. Perhaps he would take them down presently and carry them away with him.

Very softly now he advanced into the room, and looking round the corner of the door, he saw her, sprawling and fully dressed on the broad bed. She lay on her back, eyes closed and mouth open, her dull grey hair spread over the pillow. Evidently she had not made the bed that day, for she lay stretched on the crumpled back-turned blankets. A hair-brush was on the floor beside her; it seemed to have fallen from her hand. He moved quickly towards her.

He put on his shoes again when he came to the foot of the stairs, carrying the lamp with him and the two pictures which he had taken down from the wall, and went into the studio. He set the lamp on the table and drew down the blinds, and his eye fell on the half-empty whisky bottle from which he had seen her drinking. Though his hand was quite steady and his mind composed and tranquil, there was yet at the back of it some impression that was slowly developing, and a good dose of spirits would no doubt expunge that. He drank half a tumbler of it raw and undiluted, and though it seemed no more than water in his mouth, he soon felt that it was doing its work and sponging away from his mind the picture that had been outlining itself there. In a couple of minutes he was quite himself again, and could afford to wonder and laugh at the illusion, for it was no less than that, which had been gaining on him. For though he could distinctly remember drawing the noose tight, and seeing the face grow black, and struggling with the convulsive movements of those withered limbs that soon lay quiet again, there had sprung up in his mind some unaccountable impression that what he had left there huddled on the bed was not just the bundle of withered limbs and strangled neck, but the body of a young girl, smooth of skin and golden of hair, with mouth that smiled drowsily. She had been asleep when he came in, and now was half-awake, and was stirring and stretching herself. In what dim region of his mind that image had formed itself, he had no idea; all he cared about now was that his drink had shattered it again, and he could proceed with order and method to make all secure. Just one drop more first: how lucky it was that this morning he had been liberal with his money when she came to the village, for he would have been sorry to have gone without that fillip to his nerves.

He looked at his watch, and saw to his satisfaction that it was still only a little after seven o’clock. Half an hour’s walking, with this gale to speed his steps, would easily carry him from door to door, round the detour which approached the village from the east, and a quarter of an hour, so he reckoned, would be sufficient to accomplish thoroughly what remained to be done here. He must not hurry and thus overlook some precaution needful for his safety, though, on the other hand, he would be glad to be gone from the house as soon as might be, and he proceeded to set about his work without delay. There was brushwood and fire-kindling to be brought in from the wood-shed in the yard, and he made three journeys, returning each time with his arms full, before he had brought in what he judged to be sufficient. Most of this he piled in a loose heap in the studio; with the rest he ascended once more to the bedroom above and made a heap of it there in the middle of the floor. He took the curtains down from the windows, for they would make a fine wick for the paraffin, and stuffed them into the pile. Before he left, he looked once more at what lay on the bed, and marvelled at the illusion which the whisky had dispelled, and as he looked, the sense that he was free mounted and bubbled in his head. The thing seemed scarcely human at all; it was a monster from which he had delivered himself, and now, with the thought of that to warm him, he was no longer eager to get through with his work and be gone, for it was all part of that act of riddance which he had accomplished, and he gloried in it. Soon, when all was ready, he would come back once more and soak the fuel and set light to it, and purge with fire the corruption that lay humped on the bed.

The fury of the gale had increased with nightfall, and as he went downstairs again he heard the rattle of loosened tiles on the roof, and the crash as they shattered themselves on the cobbles of the yard. At that a sudden misgiving made his breath to catch in his throat, as he pictured to himself some maniac blast falling on the house and crashing in the walls that now trembled and shuddered. Supposing the whole house fell, even if he escaped with his life from the toppling ruin, what would his life be worth? There would be search made in the fallen débris to find the body of her who lay strangled with the whipcord round her neck, and he pictured to himself the slow, relentless march of justice. He had bought whipcord only yesterday at a shop in the village, insisting on its strength and toughness … would it be wiser now, this moment, to untie the noose and take it back with him or add it to his brushwood?… He paused on the staircase, pondering that; but his flesh quaked at the thought, and master of himself though he had been during those few struggling minutes, he distrusted his power of making himself handle once more that which could struggle no longer. But even as he tried to screw his courage to the point, the violence of the squall passed, and the shuddering house braced itself again. He need not fear that; the gale was his friend that would blow on the flames, not his enemy. The blasts that trumpeted overhead were the voices of the allies who had come to aid him.

All was arranged then upstairs for the pouring of the paraffin and the lighting of the pyre; it remained but to make similar dispositions in the studio. He would stay to feed the flames till they raged beyond all power of extinction; and now he began to plan the line of his retreat. There were two doors in the studio: one by the fireplace which opened on to the little garden; the other gave into the passage entrance from which mounted the stairs and so to the door through which he had come into the house. He decided to use the garden-door for his exit; but when he came to open it, he found that the key was stiff in the rusty lock, and did not yield to his efforts. There was no use in wasting time over that; it made no difference through which door he finally emerged, and he began piling up his heap of wood at that end of the room. The lamp was burning low; but the fire, which only so few minutes ago she had fed with a broken chair, shone brightly, and a flaming ember from it would serve to set light to his conflagration. There was a straw mat in front of it, which would make fine kindling, and with these two fires, one in the bedroom upstairs and the other here, there would be no mistake about the incineration of the house and all that it contained. His own crime, if crime it was, would perish, too, and all evidence thereof, victim and whipcord, and the very walls of the house of sin and hate. It was a great deed and a fine adventure, and as the liquor he had drunk began to circulate more buoyantly through his veins, he gloried at the thought of the approaching consummation. He would slip out of the sordid tragedy of his past life, as from a discarded garment that he threw into the bonfire he would soon kindle.

All was ready now for the soaking of the fuel he had piled with the paraffin, and he went out to the shed in the yard where the barrel stood. A big tin ewer stood beside it, which he filled and carried indoors. That would be sufficient for the soaking of the pile upstairs, and fetching the smoky and flickering lamp from the studio, he went up again, and like a careful gardener watering some bed of choice blossoms, he sprinkled and poured till his ewer was empty. He gave but one glance to the bed behind him, where the huddled thing lay so quietly, and as he turned, lamp in hand, to go down again, the draught that came in through the window against which the gale blew, extinguished it. A little blue flame of burning vapour rose in the chimney and went out; so, having no further use for it, he pitched it on to the pile of soaked material. As he left the room he thought he heard some small stir of movement behind him, but he told himself that it was but something slipping in the heap he had built there.

Again he went out into the storm. The clouds that scudded overhead were thinner now, though the gale blew not less fiercely, and the blurred, watery moonlight was brighter. Once for a moment, as he approached the shed, he caught sight of the full orb plunging madly among the streaming vapours; then she was hidden again behind the wrack. Close in front of him were the fir trees of the wood where those sweet trysts had been held, and once again the vision of her as she had been broke into his mind and the queer conviction that it was no withered and bloated hag, who lay on the bed upstairs but the fair, comely limbs and the golden head. It was even more vivid now, and he made haste to get back to the studio, where he would find the trusty medicine that had dispelled that vision before. He would have to make two journeys at least with his tin ewer before he transported enough oil to feed the larger pyre below, and so, to save time, he took the barrel off its stand, and rolled it along the path and into the house. He paused at the foot of the stairs, listening to hear if anything stirred, but all was silent. Whatever had slipped up there was steady again; from outside only came the squeal and bellow of the wind.

The studio was brightly but fitfully lit by the flames on the hearth; at one moment a noonday blazed there, the next but the last smoulder of some red sunset. It was easier to decant from the barrel into his ewer than carry the heavy keg and sprinkle from it, and once and once again he filled and emptied it. One more application would be sufficient, and after that he could let what remained trickle out on to the floor. But by some awkward movement he managed to spill a splash of it down the front of his trousers: he must be sure, therefore (how quickly his brain responded with counsels of precautions), to have some accident with his lamp when he came in to his supper, which should account for this little misadventure. Or, probably, the wind through which he would presently be walking would dry it before he reached the village.

So, for the last time with matches ready in his hand, he mounted the stairs to set light to the fuel piled in the room above. His second dose of whisky sang in his head, and he said to himself, smiling at the humour of the notion, “She always liked a fire in her bedroom; she shall have it now.” That seemed a very comical idea, and it dwelt in his head as he struck the match which should light it for her. Then, still grinning, he gave one glance to the bed, and the smile died on his face, and the wild cymbals of panic crashed in his brain. The bed was empty; no huddled shape lay there.

Distraught with terror, he thrust the match into the soaked pile and the flame flared up. Perhaps the body had rolled off the bed. It must, in any case, be here somewhere, and when once the room was alight there would be nothing more to fear. High rose the smoky flame, and banging the door, he leaped down the stairs to set light to the pile below and be gone from the house. Yet, whatever monstrous miracle his eye had assured him of, it could not be that she still lived and had left the place where she lay, for she had ceased to breathe when the noose was tight round her neck, and her fight for life and air had long been stilled. But, if by some hideous witchcraft, she was not dead, it would soon be over now with her in the stupefaction of the smoke and the scorching flames. Let be; the door was shut and she within, for him it remained to be finished with the business, and flee from the house of terror, lest he leave the sanity of his soul behind him.

The red glare from the hearth in the studio lit his steps down the passage from the stairway, and already he could hear from above the dry crack and snap from the fire that prospered there. As he shuffled in, he held his hands to his head, as if pressing the brain back into its cool case, from which it seemed eager to fly out into the welter of storm and fire and hideous imagination. If he could only control himself for a few moments more, all would be done and he would escape from this disordered haunted place into the night and the gale, leaving behind him the blaze that would burn away all perilous stuff. Again the flames broke out in the embers on the hearth, bravely burning, and he took from the heart of the glare a fragment on which the fire was bursting into yellow flowers. He heeded not the scorching of his hand, for it was but for a moment that he held it, and then plunged it into the pile that dripped with the oil he had poured on it. A tower of flame mounted, licking the rafters of the low ceiling, then died away as if suffocated by its own smoke, but crept onwards, nosing its way along till it reached the straw mat, which blazed fiercely. That blaze kindled the courage in him; whatever trick his imagination had played on him just now, he had nothing to fear except his own terror, which now he mastered again, for nothing real could ever escape from the conflagration, and it was only the real that he feared. Spells and witchcrafts and superstitions, such as for the last twenty years had battened on him, were all enclosed in that tight-drawn noose.

It was time to be gone, for all was safe now, and the room was growing to oven-heat. But as he picked his way across the floor over which runnels of flames from the split barrel were beginning to spread this way and that, he heard from above the sound of a door unlatched, and footsteps light and firm tapped on the stairs. For one second the sheer catalepsy of panic seized him, but he recovered his control, and with hands that groped through the thick smoke he found the door. At that moment the fire shot up in a blaze of blinding flame, and there in the doorway stood Ellen. It was no withered body and bloated face that confronted him, but she with whom he had trysted in the wood, with the bloom of eternal youth upon her, and the smooth soft hand, on which was her wedding-ring, pointed at him.

It was in vain that he called on himself to rush forward out of that torrid and suffocating air. The front door was open, he had but to pass her and speed forth safe into the night. But no power from his will reached his limbs; his will screamed to him, “Go, go! Push by her: it is but a phantom which you fear!” but muscle and sinew were in mutiny, and step by step he retreated before that pointing finger and the radiant shape that advanced on him. The flames that flickered over the floor had discovered the paraffin he had spilt, and leaped up his leg.

Just one spot in his brain retained lucidity from the encompassing terror. Somewhere behind that barrier of fire there was the second door into the garden. He had but cursorily attempted to unlock its rusty wards; now, surely, the knowledge that there alone was escape would give strength to his hand. He leaped backwards through the flames, still with eyes fixed on her who ever advanced in time with his retreat, and turning, wrestled and strove with the key. Something snapped in his hand, and there still in the keyhole was the bare shaft.

Holding his breath, for the heat scorched his throat, he groped towards where he knew was the window through which he had first seen her that night. The flames licked fiercely round it, but there, beneath his hand, was the hasp, and he threw it open. At that the wind poured in as through the nozzle of a plied bellows, and Death rose high and bright around him. Through the flames, as he sank to the floor, a face radiant with revenge smiled on him.

The post PseudoPod 702: At the Farmhouse appeared first on PseudoPod.

May 08 2020

40mins

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PseudoPod 701: Technicolor

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“Technicolor” was first published in Poe: 19 New Tales of Suspense, Dark Fantasy and Horror in 2009

The inspiration, “The Masque of the Red Death”, was read on PodCastle and can be found here

The Tor article that Alasdair mentions: https://www.tor.com/2019/11/13/the-things-we-do-for-course-credit-john-langans-technicolor/

Technicolor

by John Langan

Come on, say it out loud with me: “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” Look at that sentence. Who says Edgar Allan Poe was a lousy stylist? Thirteen words—good number for a horror story, right? Although it’s not so much a story as a masque. Yes, it’s about a masque, but it is a masque, too. Of course, you all know what a masque is. If you didn’t, you looked it up in your dictionaries, because that’s what you do in a senior seminar. Anyone?

No, not a play, not exactly. Yes? Good, okay, “masquerade” is one sense of the word, a ball whose guests attend in costume. Anyone else?

Yes, very nice, nicely put. The masque does begin in the sixteenth century. It’s the entertainment of the elite, and originally, it’s a combination of pantomime and dance. Pantomime? Right—think “mime.” The idea is to perform without words, gesturally, to let the movements of your body tell the story. You do that, and you dance, and there’s your show. Later on, there’s dialogue and other additions, but I think it’s this older sense of the word the story intends. Remember that tall, silent figure at the end.

I’m sorry? Yes, good point. The two kinds of masque converge.

Back to that sentence, though. Twenty-two syllables that break almost perfectly in half, ten and twelve, “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death” and “held illimitable dominion over all.” A group of short words, one and two syllables each, takes you through the first part of the sentence, then they give way to these long, almost luxurious words, “illimitable dominion.” The rhythm—you see how complex it is? You ride along on these short words, bouncing up and down, alliterating from one “d” to the next, and suddenly you’re mired in those Latinate polysyllables. All the momentum goes out of your reading; there’s just enough time for the final pair of words, which are short, which is good, and you’re done.

Wait, just let me—no, all right, what was it you wanted to say?

Exactly, yes, you took the words out of my mouth. The sentence does what the story does, carries you along through the revelry until you run smack-dab into that tall figure in the funeral clothes. Great job.

One more observation about the sentence, then I promise it’s on to the story itself. I know you want to talk about Prospero’s castle, all those colored rooms. Before we do, however, the four “d”s. We’ve mentioned already, there are a lot of “d” sounds in these thirteen words. They thread through the line, help tie it together. They also draw our attention to four words in particular. The first three are easy to recognize: they’re capitalized, as well. Darkness, Decay, Death. The fourth? Right, dominion. Anyone want to take a stab at why they’re capitalized?

Yes? Well.. .okay, sure it makes them into proper nouns. Can you take that a step farther? What kind of proper nouns does it make them? What’s happened to the Red Death in the story? It’s gone from an infection you can’t see to a tall figure wandering around the party. Personification, good. Darkness, Decay, (the Red) Death: the sentence personifies them; they’re its trinity, its unholy trinity, so to speak. And this godhead holds dominion, what the dictionary defines as “sovereign authority” over all. Not only the prince’s castle, not only the world of the story, but all, you and me.

In fact, in a weird sort of way, this is the story of the incarnation of one of the persons of this awful trinity.

All right, moving on, now. How about those rooms? Actually, how about the building those rooms are in, first? I’ve been calling it a castle, but it isn’t, is it? It’s “castellated,” which is to say, castle-like, but it’s an abbey, a monastery. I suppose it makes sense to want to wait out the Red Death in a place like an abbey. After all, it’s both removed from the rest of society and well-fortified. And we shouldn’t be too hard on the prince and his followers for retreating there. It’s not the first time this has happened, in literature or life. Anyone read The Decameron? Boccaccio? It’s a collection of one hundred stories told by ten people, five women and five men, who have sequestered themselves in, I’m pretty sure it’s a convent, to wait out the plague ravaging Florence. The Black Death, that one.

If you consider that the place in which we find the seven rooms is a monastery, a place where men are supposed to withdraw from this world to meditate on the next, its rooms appear even stranger. What’s the set-up? Seven rooms, yes, thank you, I believe I just said that. Running east to west, good. In a straight line? No. There’s a sharp turn every twenty or thirty yards, so that you can see only one room at a time. So long as they follow that east to west course, you can lay the rooms out in any form you like. I favor steps, like the ones that lead the condemned man to the chopping block, but that’s just me.

Hang on, hang on, we’ll get to the colors in a second. We need to stay with the design of the rooms for a little longer. Not everybody gets this the first time through. There are a pair of windows, Gothic windows, which means what? That they’re long and pointed at the top. The windows are opposite one another, and they look out on, anybody? Not exactly: a chandelier hangs down from the ceiling. It is a kind of light, though. No, a candelabra holds candles. Anyone else? A brazier, yes, there’s a brazier sitting on a tripod outside either window. They’re, how would you describe a brazier? Like a big metal cup, a bowl, that you fill with some kind of fuel and ignite. Wood, charcoal, oil. To be honest, I’m not as interested in the braziers as I am in where they’re located. Outside the windows, right, but where outside the windows? Maybe I should say, What is outside the windows? Corridors, yes, there are corridors to either side of the rooms, and it’s along these that the braziers are stationed. Just like our classroom. Not the tripods, of course, and I guess what’s outside our windows is more a gallery than a corridor, since it’s open to the parking lot on the other side. All right, all right, so I’m stretching a bit, here, but have you noticed, the room has seven windows? One for each color in Prospero’s Abbey. Go ahead, count them.

So here we are in this strange abbey, one that has a crazy zig-zag suite of rooms with corridors running beside them. You could chalk the location’s details up to anti-Catholic sentiment; there are critics who have argued that anti-Catholic prejudice is the secret engine driving Gothic literature. No, I don’t buy it, not in this case. Sure, there are stained-glass windows, but they’re basically tinted glass. There’s none of the iconography you’d expect if this were anti-Catholic propaganda, no statues or paintings. All we have is that enormous clock in the last room, the mother of all grandfather clocks. Wait a minute…

What about those colors, then? Each of the seven rooms is decorated in a single color that matches the stained glass of its windows. From east to west, we go from blue to purple to green to orange to white to violet to—to the last room, where there’s a slight change. The windows are red, but the room itself is done in black. There seems to be some significance to the color sequence, but what that is—well, this is why we have literature professors, right? (No snickering.) Not to mention, literature students. I’ve read through your responses to the homework assignment, and there were a few interesting ideas as to what those colors might mean. Of course, most of you connected them to times of the day, blue as dawn, black as night, the colors in between morning, noon, early afternoon, that kind of thing. Given the east-west layout, it makes a certain amount of sense. A few more of you picked up on that connection to time in a slightly different way, and related the colors to times of the year, or the stages in a person’s life. In the process, some clever arguments were made. Clever, but not, I’m afraid, too convincing.

What! What’s wrong! What is it! Are you all—oh, them. Oh for God’s sake. When you screamed like that, I thought—I don’t know what I thought. I thought I’d need a new pair of trousers. Those are a couple of graduate students I’ve enlisted to help me with a little presentation I’ll be putting up shortly. Yes, I can understand how the masks could startle you. They’re just generic white masks; I think they found them downtown somewhere. It was their idea: once I told them what story we would be discussing, they immediately hit on wearing the masks. To tell the truth, I half-expected they’d show up sporting the heads of enormous fanged monsters. Those are relatively benign.

Yes, I suppose they do resemble the face the Red Death assumes for its costume. No blood splattered on them, though.

If I could have your attention up here, again. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. Where was I? Your homework, yes, thank you. Right, right. Let’s see… oh—I know. A couple of you read the colors in more original ways. I made a note of them somewhere—here they are. One person interpreted the colors as different states of mind, beginning with blue as tranquil and ending with black as despair, with stops for jealousy—green, naturally—and passion—white, as in white-hot—along the way. Someone else made the case for the colors as, let me make sure I have the phrasing right, “phases of being.”

Actually, that last one’s not bad. Although the writer could be less obtuse; clarity, people, academic writing needs to be clear. Anyway, the gist of the writer’s argument is that each color is supposed to take you through a different state of existence, blue at one end of the spectrum representing innocence, black at the other representing death. Death as a state of being, that’s… provocative. Which is not to say it’s correct, but it’s headed in the right direction.

I know, I know: Which is? The answer requires some explanation. Scratch that. It requires a boatload of explanation. That’s why I have Tweedledee and Tweedledum setting up outside. (Don’t look! They’re almost done.) It’s also why I lowered the screen behind me for the first time this semester. There are some images I want to show you, and they’re best seen in as much detail as possible. If I can remember what the Media Center people told me… click this… then this…

Voila!

Matthew Brady’s Portrait of Edgar, taken 1848, his last full year alive. It’s the best-known picture of him; were I to ask you to visualize him, this is what your minds’ eyes would see. That forehead, that marble expanse—yes, his hair does make the top of his head look misshapen, truncated. As far as I know, it wasn’t. The eyes—I suppose everyone comments on the eyes, slightly shadowed under those brows, the lids lowered just enough to suggest a certain detachment, even dreaminess. It’s the mouth I notice, how it tilts up ever-so-slightly at the right corner. It’s hard to see; you have to look closely. A strange mixture of arrogance, even contempt, and something else, something that might be humor, albeit of the bitter variety. It wouldn’t be that much of a challenge to suggest colors for the picture, but somehow, black and white is more fitting, isn’t it? Odd, considering how much color there is in the fiction. I’ve often thought all those old Roger Corman adaptations, the ones Vincent Price starred in—whatever their other faults, one thing they got exactly right was Technicolor, which was the perfect way to film these stories, just saturate the screen with the most vibrant colors you could find.

I begin with the Portrait as a reminder. This is the man. His hand scraped the pen across the paper, brought the story we’ve been discussing into existence word by word. Not creation ex nihilo, out of nothing, creation… if my Latin were better, or existent, I’d have a fancier way to say out of the self, or out of the depths of the self, or—hey—out of the depth that is the self.

Moving on to our next portrait… Anyone?

I’m impressed. Not many people know this picture. Look closely, though. See it?

That’s right: it isn’t a painting. It’s a photograph that’s been tweaked to resemble a painting. The portrait it imitates is a posthumous representation of Virginia Clemm, Edgar’s sweetheart and child bride. The girl in the photo? She’ll be happy you called her a girl. That’s my wife, Anna. Yes, I’m married. Why is that so hard to believe? We met many years ago, in a kingdom by the sea. From? “Annabel Lee,” good. No, just Anna; although we did meet in the King of the Sea Arcade, on the Jersey shore. Seriously. She is slightly younger than I am. Four years, thank you very much. You people. For Halloween one year, we dressed up as Edgar and Virginia—pretty much from the start, it’s been a running joke between us. In her case, the resemblance is striking.

As it so happened, yes we did attend a masquerade as the happy couple. That was where this photo was taken. One of the other guests was a professional photographer. I arranged the shot; he took it, then used a program on his computer to transform it into a painting. The guy was quite pleased with it; apparently it’s on his website. I’m showing it to you because… well, because I want to. There’s probably a connection I could draw between masquerade, the suppression of one identity in order to invoke and inhabit another, that displacement, and the events of our story, but that’s putting the cart about a mile before the horse. She’ll like that you thought she was a girl, though; that’ll make her night. Those were her cookies, by the way. Are there any left? Not even the sugar cookies? Figures.

Okay, image number three. If you can name this one, you get an “A” for the class and an autographed picture of the Pope. Put your hand down, you don’t know. How about the rest of you?

Just us crickets…

It’s just as well; I don’t have that picture of the Pope anymore. This gentleman is Prosper Vauglais. Or so he claimed. There’s a lot about this guy no one’s exactly sure of, like when he was born, or where, or when and where he died. He showed up in Paris in the late eighteen-teens and caused something of a stir. For one winter, he appeared at several of the less reputable salons and a couple of the, I wouldn’t go so far as to say more reputable—maybe less disreputable ones.

His “deal?” His deal, as you put it, was that he claimed to have been among the quarter of a million soldiers under Napoleon Bonaparte’s personal command when, in June of 1812, the Emperor decided to invade Russia. Some of you may remember from your European history classes, this was a very bad idea. The worst. Roughly a tenth of Napoleon’s forces survived the campaign; I want to say the number who limped back into France was something like twenty-two thousand. In and of itself, being a member of that group is nothing to sneeze at. For Vauglais, though, it was only the beginning. During the more-or-less running battles the French army fought as it retreated from what had been Moscow, Vauglais was separated from his fellows, struck on the head by a Cossack’s sword and left for dead in a snow bank. When he came to, he was alone, and a storm had blown up. Prosper had no idea where he was; he assumed still Russia, which wasn’t too encouraging. Any Russian peasants or what have you who came across French soldiers, even those trying to surrender, tended to hack them to death with farm implements first and ask questions later. So when Prosper strikes out in what he hopes is the approximate direction of France, he isn’t what you’d call terribly optimistic.

Nor is his pessimism misplaced. Within a day, he’s lost, frozen and starving, wandering around the inside of a blizzard like you read about, white-out conditions, shrieking wind, unbearable cold. The blow to his head isn’t helping matters, either. His vision keeps going in and out of focus. Sometimes he feels so nauseated he can barely stand, let alone continue walking. Once in a while, he’ll see a light shining in the window of a farmhouse, but he gives these a wide berth. Another day, and he’ll be closer to death than he was even at the worst battles he saw—than he was when that saber connected with his skull. His skin, which has been numb since not long after he started his trek, has gone from pale to white to this kind of blue-gray, and it’s hardened, as if there’s a crust of ice on it. He can’t feel his pulse through it. His breath, which had been venting from his nose and mouth in long white clouds, seems to have slowed to a trickle, if that. He can’t see anything; although, with the storm continuing around him, maybe that isn’t so strange. He’s not cold anymore—or, it’s not that he isn’t cold so much as it is that the cold isn’t torturing him the way it was. At some point, the cold moved inside him, took up residence just beneath his heart, and once that happened, that transition was accomplished, the temperature outside became of much less concern.

There’s a moment—while Vauglais is staggering around like you do when you’re trying to walk in knee-high snow without snowshoes, pulling each foot free, swiveling it forward, crashing it through the snow in front of you, then repeating the process with your other foot—there’s a moment when he realizes he’s dead. He isn’t sure when it happened. Some time in the last day or so. It isn’t that he thinks he’s in some kind of afterlife, that he’s wandering around a frozen hell. No, he knows he’s still stuck somewhere in western Russia. It’s just that, now he’s dead. He isn’t sure why he hasn’t stopped moving. He considers doing so, giving his body a chance to catch up to his apprehension of it, but decides against it. For one thing, he isn’t sure it would work, and suppose while he’s standing in place, waiting to fall over, someone finds him, one of those peasants, or a group of Russian soldiers? Granted, if he’s already dead, they can’t hurt him, but the prospect of being cut to pieces while still conscious is rather horrifying. And for another thing, Prosper isn’t ready to quit walking. So he keeps moving forward. Dimly, the way you might hear a noise when you’re fast asleep, he’s aware that he isn’t particularly upset at finding himself dead and yet moving, but after recent events, maybe that isn’t so surprising.

Time passes; how much, he can’t say. The blizzard doesn’t lift, but it thins, enough for Vauglais to make out trees, evergreens. He’s in a forest, a pretty dense one, from what he can see, which may explain why the storm has lessened. The trees are—there’s something odd about the trees. For as close together as they are, they seem to be in almost perfect rows, running away into the snow on either side of him. In and of itself, maybe that isn’t strange. Could be, he’s wandered into some kind of huge formal garden. But there’s more to it. When he looks at any particular tree, he sees, not so much bark and needles as black, black lines like the strokes of a paintbrush, or the scratches of a pen, forming the approximation of an evergreen. It’s as if he’s seeing a sketch of a tree, an artist’s estimate. The black lines appear to be moving, almost too quickly for him to notice; it’s as if he’s witnessing them being drawn and re-drawn. Prosper has a sudden vision of himself from high above, a small, dark spot in the midst of long rows of black on white, a stray bit of punctuation loose among the lines of an unimaginable text.

Eventually, Vauglais reaches the edge of the forest. Ahead, there’s a building, the title to this page he’s been traversing. The blizzard has kicked up again, so he can’t see much, but he has the impression of a long, low structure, possibly stone. It could be a stable, could be something else. Although there are no religious symbols evident, Prosper has an intuition the place is a monastery. He should turn right or left, avoid the building—the Russian clergy haven’t taken any more kindly to the French invaders than the Russian people—instead, he raises one stiff leg and strikes off towards it. It isn’t that he’s compelled to do so, that he’s in the grip of a power that he can’t resist, or that he’s decided to embrace the inevitable, surrender to death. He isn’t even especially curious about the stone structure. Forward is just a way to go, and he does.

As he draws closer, Vauglais notices that the building isn’t becoming any easier to distinguish. If anything, it’s more indistinct, harder to make out. If the trees behind him were rough drawing, this place is little more than a scribble, a jumble of lines whose form is as much in the eye of the beholder as anything. When a figure in a heavy coat and hat separates from the structure and begins to trudge in his direction, it’s as if a piece of the place has broken off. Prosper can’t see the man’s face, all of which except the eyes is hidden by the folds of a heavy scarf, but he lifts one mittened hand and gestures for Vauglais to follow him inside, which the Frenchman does.

And . . . no one knows what happens next.

What do I mean? I’m sorry: wasn’t I speaking English? No one knows what happened inside the stone monastery. Prosper writes a fairly detailed account of the events leading up to that point, which is where the story I’m telling you comes from, but when the narrative reaches this moment, it breaks off with Vauglais’s declaration that he’s told us as much as he can. End of story.

All right, yes, there are hints of what took place during the five years he was at the Abbey. That was what he called the building, the Abbey. Every so often, Prosper would allude to his experiences in it, and sometimes, someone would note his remarks in a letter or diary. From combing through these kinds of documents, it’s possible to assemble and collate Vauglais’s comments into a glimpse of his life with the Fraternity. Again, his name. There were maybe seven of them, or seven after he arrived, or there were supposed to be seven. He referred to “Brother Red,” once; to “The White Brother” at another time. Were the others named Blue, Purple, Green, Orange, and Violet? We can’t say; although, as an assumption, it isn’t completely unreasonable. They spent their days in pursuit of something Vauglais called The Great Work; he also referred to it as The Transumption. This seems to have involved generous amounts of quiet meditation combined with the study of certain religious texts—Prosper doesn’t name them, but they may have included some Gnostic writings.

The Gnostics? I don’t suppose you would have heard of them. How many of you actually go to church? As I feared. What would Sister Mary Mary say? The Gnostics were a religious sect who sprang up around the same time as the early Christians. I guess they would have described themselves as the true Christians, the ones who understood what Jesus’ teachings were really about. They shared sacred writings with the more orthodox Christians, but they had their own books, too. They were all about gnosis, knowledge, especially of the self. For them, the secret to what lay outside the self was what lay inside the self. The physical world was evil, a wellspring of illusions and delusions. Gnostics tended to retreat to the desert, lead lives of contemplation. Unlike the mainstream Christians, they weren’t much on formal organization; that, and the fact that those Christians did everything in their power to shunt the Gnostics and their teachings to the margins and beyond, branding some of their ideas as heretical, helps explain why they pretty much vanished from the religious scene.

“Pretty much,” though, isn’t the same thing as “completely.” (I know: such precise, scientific terminology.) Once in a while, Gnostic ideas would resurface, usually in the writings of some fringe figure or another. Rumors persist of Gnostic secret societies, occasionally as part of established groups like the Jesuits or the Masons. Which begs the question, Was Vauglais’s Fraternity one of these societies, a kind of order of Gnostic monks? The answer to which is— Right: no one knows. There’s no record of any official, which is to say, Russian Orthodox religious establishment: no monastery, no church, in the general vicinity of where we think Prosper was. Of course, a bunch of Gnostic monastics would hardly constitute anything resembling an official body, and so might very well fly under the radar. That said, the lack of proof against something does not count as evidence for it.

That’s true. He could have been making the whole thing up.

Transumption? It’s a term from classical rhetoric. It refers to the elision of a chain of associations. Sorry—sometimes I like to watch your heads explode. Let’s say you’re writing your epic poem about the fall of Troy, and you describe one of the Trojans being felled by an arrow. Let’s say that arrow was made from the wood of a tree in a sacred grove; let’s say, too, that that grove was planted by Hercules, who scattered some acorns there by accident. Now let’s say that, when your Trojan hero sinks to the ground, drowning in his own blood, one of his friends shouts, “Curse the careless hand of Hercules!” That statement is an example of transumption. You’ve jumped from one link in a chain of associations back several. Make sense?

Yes, well, what does a figure of speech have to do with what was going on inside that Abbey?

Oh wait—hold on for a moment. My two assistants are done with their set up. Let me give them a signal… Five more minutes? All right, good, yes. I have no idea if they understood me. Graduate students.

Don’t worry about what’s on the windows. Yes, yes, those are lamps. Can I have your attention up here, please? Thank you. Let me worry about Campus Security. Or my masked friends out there will.

Okay—let’s skip ahead a little. We were talking about The Transumption, a.k.a. The Great Work. There’s nothing in his other references to the Abbey that offers any clue as to what he may have meant by it. However, there is an event that may shed some light on things.

It occurs in Paris, towards the end of February. An especially fierce winter scours the streets, sends people scurrying from the shelter of one building to another. Snow piles on top of snow, all of it turning dirty gray. Where there isn’t snow, there’s ice, inches thick in places. The sky is gray, the sun a pale blur that puts in a token appearance for a few hours a day. Out into this glacial landscape, Prosper leads half a dozen men and women from one of the city’s less-disreputable salons. Their destination, the catacombs, the long tunnels that run under Paris. They’re quite old, the catacombs. In some places, the walls are stacked with bones, from when they were used as a huge ossuary. (That’s a place to hold the bones of the dead.) They’re also fairly crowded, full of beggars, the poor, searching for shelter from the ravages of the season. Yauglais has to take his party deep underground before they can find a location that’s suitably empty. It’s a kind of side-chamber, roughly circular, lined with shelves hill of skull piled on skull. The skulls make a clicking sound, from the rats shuffling through them. Oh yes, there are plenty of rats down here.

Prosper fetches seven skulls off the shelves and piles them in the center of the room. He opens a large flask he’s carried with him, and pours its contents over the bones. It’s lamp oil, which he immediately ignites with his torch. He sets the torch down, and gathers the members of the salon around the skulls. They join hands.

It does sound as if he’s leading a séance, doesn’t it? The only difference is, he isn’t asking the men and women with him to think of a beloved one who’s passed beyond. Nor does he request they focus on a famous ghost. Instead, Vauglais tells them to look at the flames licking the bones in front of them. Study those flames, he says, watch them as they trace the contours of the skulls. Follow the flames over the cheeks, around the eyes, up the brows. Gaze into those eyes, into the emptiness inside the fire. Fall through the flames; fall into that blackness.

He’s hypnotizing them, of course—Mesmerizing would be the more historically accurate term. Under the sway of his voice, the members of the salon enter a kind of vacancy. They’re still conscious—well, they’re still perceiving, still aware of that heap of bones burning in front of them, the heavy odor of the oil, the quiet roar of the flames—but their sense of their selves, the accumulation of memory and inclination that defines each from the other, is gone.

Now Prosper is telling them to think of something new. Picture the flesh that used to clothe these skulls, he says. Warm and smooth, flushed with life. Look closely—it glows, doesn’t it? It shines with its living. Watch! watch—it’s dying. It’s growing cold, pale. The glow, that dim light floating at the very limit of the skin—it’s changing, drifting up, losing its radiance. See—there!—ah, it’s dead. Cool as a cut of meat. Gray. The light is gone. Or is it? Is that another light? Yes, yes it is; but it is not the one we have watched dissipate. This is a darker glow. Indigo, that most elusive of the rainbow’s hues. It curls over the dull skin like fog, and the flesh opens for it, first in little cracks, then in long windows, and then in wide doorways. As the skin peels away, the light thickens, until it is as if the bone is submerged in a bath of indigo. The light is not done moving; it pours into the air above the skull, over all the skulls. Dark light is rising from them, twisting up in thick streams that seek each other, that wrap around one another, that braid a shape. It is the form of a man, a tall man dressed in black robes, his face void as a corpse’s, his head crowned with black flame— Afterwards, when the half-dozen members of the salon compare notes, none of them can agree on what, if anything, they saw while under Vauglais’s sway. One of them insists that nothing appeared. Three admit to what might have been a cloud of smoke, or a trick of the light. Of the remaining pair, one states flat-out that she saw the Devil. The other balks at any statement more elaborate than, “Monsieur Vauglais has shown me terrible joy.” Whatever they do or don’t see, it doesn’t last very long. The oil Prosper doused the skulls with has been consumed. The fire dies away; darkness rushes in to fill the gap. The trance in which Vauglais has held the salon breaks. There’s a sound like wind rushing, then quiet.

A month after that expedition, Prosper disappeared from Paris. He had attempted to lead that same salon back into the catacombs for a second—well, whatever you’d call what he’d done. A summoning? (But what was he summoning?) Not surprisingly, the men and women of the salon declined his request. In a huff, Vauglais left them and tried to insert himself into a couple of even-less-disreputable salons, attempting to use gossip about his former associates as his price of admission. But either the secrets he knew weren’t juicy enough—possible, but I suspect unlikely—or those other salons had heard about his underground investigations and decided they preferred the comfort of their drawing rooms. Then one of the men from that original salon raised questions about Prosper’s military service—he claimed to have found a sailor who swore that he and Vauglais had been on an extended debauch in Morocco at the very time he was supposed to have been marching towards Moscow. That’s the problem with being the flavor of the month: before you know it, the calendar’s turned, and no one can remember what they found so appealing about you in the first place. In short order, there’s talk about an official inquiry into Prosper’s service record—probably more rumor than fact, but it’s enough for Vauglais, and he departs Paris for parts unknown. No one sees him leave, just as no one saw him arrive. In the weeks that follow, there are reports of Prosper in Libya, Madagascar, but they don’t disturb a single eyebrow. Years—decades later, when Gauguin’s in Tahiti, he’ll hear a story about a strange white man who came to the island a long time ago and vanished into its interior, and Vauglais’s name will occur to him, but you can’t even call that a legend. It’s… a momentary association. Prosper Vauglais vanishes.

Well, not all of him. That’s right: there’s the account he wrote of his discovery of the Abbey.

I beg your pardon? Dead? Oh, right, yes. It’s interesting—apparently, Prosper permitted a physician connected to the first salon he frequented to conduct a pretty thorough examination of him. According to Dr. Zumachin, Vauglais’s skin was stubbornly pallid. No matter how much the doctor pinched or slapped it, Prosper’s flesh remained the same gray-white. Not only that, it was cold, cold and hard, as if it were packed with ice. Although Vauglais had to inhale in order to speak, his regular respiration was so slight as to be undetectable. It wouldn’t fog the doctor’s pocket mirror. And try as Zumachin might, he could not locate a pulse.

Sure, Prosper could have paid him off; aside from his part in this story, there isn’t that much information on the good doctor. For what it’s worth, most of the people who met Vauglais commented on his skin, its pallor, and, if they touched it, its coldness. No one else noted his breathing, or lack thereof, but a couple of the members of that last salon described him as extraordinarily still.

Okay, back to that book. Actually, wait. Before we do, let me bring this up on the screen…

I know—talk about something completely different. No, it’s not a Rorschach test. It does look like it, though, doesn’t it? Now if my friends outside will oblige me… and there we go. Amazing what a sheet of blue plastic and a high-power lamp can do. We might as well be in the east room of Prospero’s Abbey.

Yes, the blue light makes it appear deeper—it transforms it from ink-spill to opening. Prosper calls it “La Bouche,” the Mouth. Some mouth, eh?

That’s where the design comes from, Vauglais’s book. The year after his disappearance, a small Parisian press whose biggest claim to fame was its unauthorized edition of the Marquis de Sade’s Justine publishes Prosper’s L’Histoire de Mes Aventures dans L’Etendu Russe, which translates something like, “The History of My Adventures in the Russian,” either “Wilderness” or “Vastness.” Not that anyone calls it by its title. The publisher, one Denis Prebend, binds Vauglais’s essay between covers the color of a bruise after three or four days. Yes, that sickly, yellowy-green. Of course that’s what catches everyone’s attention, not the less-than-inspired title, and it isn’t long before customers are asking for “le livre vertej the green book. It’s funny—it’s one of those books that no one will admit to reading, but that goes through ten printings the first year after it appears.

Some of those copies do find their way across the Atlantic, very good. In fact, within a couple of months of its publication, there are at least three pirated translations of the green book circulating the booksellers of London, and a month after that, they’re available in Boston, New York, and Baltimore.

To return to the book itself for a moment—after that frustrating ending, there’s a blank page, which is followed by seven more pages, each showing a separate design. What’s above me on the screen is the first of them. The rest—well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Suffice it to say, the initial verdict was that something had gone awry in the printing process, with the result that the bouche had become bouche, cloudy. A few scholars have even gone so far as to attempt to reconstruct what Prosper’s original images must have been. Prebend, though—the publisher—swore that he’d presented the book exactly as he had been instructed.

For those of us familiar with abstract art, I doubt there’s any great difficulty in seeing the black blot on the screen as a mouth. The effect—there used to be these books; they were full of what looked like random designs. If you held them the right distance from your face and let your eyes relax, almost to the point of going cross-eyed, all of sudden, a picture would leap out of the page at you. You know what I’m talking about? Good. I don’t know what the name for that effect is, but it’s the nearest analogue I can come up with for what happens when you look at the Mouth under blue light—except that the image doesn’t jump forward so much as sink back. The way it recedes—it’s as if it extends, not just through the screen, or the wall behind it, but beyond all that, to the very substratum of things.

To tell the truth, I have no idea what’s responsible for the effect. If you find this impressive, however…

Look at that: a new image and a fresh color. How’s that for coordination? Good work, nameless minions. Vauglais named this “Le Gardien,” the Guardian. What’s that? I suppose you could make an octopus out of it; although aren’t there a few too many tentacles? True, it’s close enough; it’s certainly more octopus than squid. Do you notice… right. The tentacles, loops, whatever we call them, appear to be moving. Focus on any one in particular, and it stands still—but you can see movement out of the corner of your eye, can’t you? Try to take in the whole, and you swear its arms are performing an intricate dance.

So the Mouth leads to the Guardian, which is waving its appendages in front of…

That green is bright after the purple, isn’t it? Voila “Le Recif, the Reef. Makes sense, a cuttlefish protecting a reef. I don’t know: it’s angular enough. Personally, I suspect this one is based on some kind of pun or word play. “Recif is one letter away from “recit” story, and this reef comes to us as the result of a story; in some weird way, the reef may be the story. I realize that doesn’t make any sense; I’m still working through it.

This image is a bit different from the previous two. Anyone notice how?

Exactly: instead of the picture appearing to move, the light itself seems to—I like your word, “shimmer.” You could believe we’re gazing through water. It’s—not hypnotic, that’s too strong, but it is soothing. Don’t you think?

I’ll take your yawn as a “yes.” Very nice. What a way to preface a question. All right, all right. What is it that’s keeping you awake?

Isn’t it obvious? Apparently not.

Yes! Edgar read Prosper’s book!

When. The best evidence is sometime in the early eighteen-thirties, after he’d relocated to Baltimore. He mentions hearing about the green book from one of his fellow cadets at West Point, but he doesn’t secure his own copy until he literally stumbles upon one in a bookshop near Baltimore’s inner harbor. He wrote a fairly amusing account of it in a letter to Virginia. The store was this long, narrow space located halfway down an alley; its shelves were stuffed past capacity with all sizes of books jammed together with no regard for their subject. Occasionally, one of the shelves would disgorge its contents without warning. If you were underneath or to the side of it, you ran the risk of substantial injury. Not to mention, the single aisle snaking into the shop’s recesses was occupied at irregular intervals by stacks of books that looked as if a strong sneeze would send them tumbling down.

It’s as he’s attempting to maneuver around an especially tall tower of books, simultaneously trying to avoid jostling a nearby shelf, that Edgar’s foot catches on a single volume he hadn’t seen, sending him—and all books in the immediate vicinity—to the floor. There’s a huge puff of dust; half a dozen books essentially disintegrate. Edgar’s sense of humor is such that he appreciates the comic aspect of a poet—as he styled himself—buried beneath a deluge of books. However, he insists on excavating the book that undid him.

The copy of Vauglais’s essay he found was a fourth translation that had been done by a Boston publisher hoping to cash in on the popularity of the other editions. Unfortunately for him, the edition took longer to prepare than he’d anticipated—his translator was a Harvard professor who insisted on translating Prosper as accurately as he could. This meant an English version of Vauglais’s essay that was a model of fidelity to the original French, but that wasn’t ready until Prospers story was last week’s news. The publisher went ahead with what he titled The Green Book of M. Prosper Vauglais anyway, but he pretty much lost his shirt over the whole thing.

Edgar was so struck at having fallen over this book that he bought it on the spot. He spent the next couple of days reading and re-reading it, puzzling over its contents. As we’ve seen in “The Gold Bug” and “The Purloined Letter,” this was a guy who liked a puzzle. He spent a good deal of time on the seven designs at the back of the book, convinced that their significance was right in front of him.

Speaking of those pictures, let’s have another one. Assistants, if you please— Hey, it’s Halloween! Isn’t that what you associate orange with? And especially an orange like this—this is the sun spilling the last of its late light, right before all the gaudier colors, the violets and pinks, splash out. You don’t think of orange as dark, do you? I know I don’t. Yet it is, isn’t it? Is it the darkest of the bright colors? To be sure, it’s difficult to distinguish the design at its center; the orange is filmy, translucent. There are a few too many curves for it to be the symbol for infinity; at least, I think there are. I want to say I see a pair of snakes wrapped around one another, but the coils don’t connect in quite the right way. Vauglais’s name for this was “Le Coeur,” the Heart, and also the Core, as well as the Height or the Depth, depending on usage. Obviously, we’re cycling through the seven rooms from “The Masque of the Red Death;” obviously, too, I’m arguing that Edgar takes their colors from Prospers book. In that schema, orange is at the center, three colors to either side of it; in that sense, we have reached the heart, the core, the height or the depth. Of course, that core obscures the other one—or maybe not.

While you try to decide, let’s return to Edgar. It’s an overstatement to say that Vauglais obsesses him. When his initial attempt at deciphering the designs fails, he puts the book aside. Remember, he’s a working writer at a time when the American economy really won’t support one—especially one with Edgar’s predilections—so there are always more things to be written in the effort to keep the wolf a safe distance from the door. Not to mention, he’s falling in love with the girl who will become his wife. At odd moments over the next decade, though, he retrieves Prosper’s essay and spends a few hours poring over it. He stares at its images until they’re grooved into the folds of his brain. During one long afternoon in 1840, he’s sitting with the book open to the Mouth, a glass of water on the table to his right. The sunlight streaming in the windows splinters on the water glass, throwing a rainbow across the page in front of him. The arc of the images that’s under the blue strip of the bow looks different; it’s as if that portion of the paper has sunk into the book—behind the book. A missing and apparently lost piece of the puzzle snaps into place, and Edgar starts up from the table, knocking over his chair in the process. He races through the house, searching for a piece of blue glass. The best he can do is a heavy blue jug, which he almost drops in his excitement. He returns to the book, angles the jug to catch the light, and watches as the Mouth opens. He doesn’t waste any time staring at it; shifting the jug to his right hand, he flips to the next image with his left, positions the glass jug over the Guardian, and… nothing. For a moment, he’s afraid he’s imagined the whole thing, had an especially vivid waking dream. But when he pages back to the Mouth and directs the blue light onto it, it clearly recedes. Edgar wonders if the effect he’s observed is unique to the first image, then his eye lights on the glass of water, still casting its rainbow. He sets the jug on the floor, turns the page, and slides the book closer to the glass.

That’s how Edgar spends the rest of the afternoon, matching the designs in the back of Vauglais’s book to the colors that activate them. The first four come relatively quickly; the last three take longer. Once he has all seven, Edgar re-reads Prosper’s essay and reproaches himself as a dunce for not having hit on the colors sooner. It’s all there in Vauglais’s prose, he declares, plain as day. (He’s being much too hard on himself. I’ve read the green book a dozen times and I have yet to find the passage where Prosper hints at the colors.)

How about a look at the most difficult designs? Gentlemen, if you please…

There’s nothing there. I know—that’s what I said, the first time I saw the fifth image. “Le Silence,” the Silence. Compared to the designs that precede it, this one is so faint as to be barely detectable. And when you shine a bright, white light onto it, it practically disappears. There is something in there, though; you have to stare at it for a while. Moreso than with the previous images, what you see here varies dramatically from viewer to viewer.

Edgar never records his response to the Silence, which is a pity. Having cracked the secret of Vauglais’s designs, he studies the essay more carefully, attempting to discern the use to which the images were to be put, the nature of Prosper’s Great Work, his Transumption. (There’s that word again. I never clarified its meaning vis a vis Vauglais’s ideas, did I?) The following year, when Edgar sits down to write “The Masque of the Red Death,” it is in no small part as an answer to the question of what Prosper was up to. That answer shares features with some of the stories he had written prior to his 1840 revelation; although, interestingly, they came after he had obtained his copy of the green book.

From the looks on your faces, I’d say you’ve seen what the Silence contains. I don’t suppose anyone wants to share?

I’ll take that as a “No.” It’s all right: what you find there can be rather… disconcerting.

We’re almost at the end of our little display. What do you say we proceed to number six? Here we go…

Violet’s such a nice color, isn’t it? You have to admit, some of those other colors are pretty intense. Not this one, though; even the image—“L’Arbre,” the Tree—looks more or less like a collection of lines trying to be a tree. Granted, if you study the design, you’ll notice that each individual line seems to fade and then re-inscribe itself, but compared to the effect of the previous image, this is fairly benign. Does it remind you of anything? Anything we were discussing, say, in the last hour or so?

Oh never mind, I’ll just tell you. Remember those trees Vauglais saw outside the Abbey? Remember the way that, when he tried to focus on any of them, he saw a mass of black lines? Hmmm. Maybe there’s more to this pleasant design than we’d thought. Maybe it’s, not the key to all this, but the key trope, or figure.

I know: which means what, exactly? Let’s return to Edgar’s story. You have a group of people who are sequestered together, made to disguise their outer identities, encouraged to debauch themselves, to abandon their inner identities, all the while passing from one end of this color schema to the other. They put their selves aside, become a massive blank, a kind of psychic space. That opening allows what is otherwise an abstraction, a personification, to change states, to manifest itself physically. Of course, the Red Death doesn’t appear of its own volition; it’s called into being by Prince Prospero, who can’t stop thinking about the reason he’s retreated into his abbey.

This is what happened—what started to happen to the members of the salon Prosper took into the Parisian catacombs. He attempted to implement what he’d learned during his years at the Abbey, what he first had perceived through the snow twirling in front of his eyes in that Russian forest. To manipulate—to mold—to…

Suppose that the real—what we take to be the real—imagine that world outside the self, all this out here, is like a kind of writing. We write it together; we’re continuously writing it together, onto the surface of things, the paper, as it were. It isn’t something we do consciously, or that we exercise any conscious control over. We might glimpse it in moments of extremity, as Vauglais did, but that’s about as close to it as most of us will come. What if, though, what if it were possible to do something more than simply look? What if you could clear a space on that paper and write something else? What might you bring into being?

Edgar tries to find out. Long after “The Masque,” which is as much caution as it is field guide, he decides to apply Prosper’s ideas for real. He does so during that famous lost week at the end of his life, that gap in the biographical record that has prompted so much speculation. Since Virginia succumbed to tuberculosis some two years prior, Edgar’s been on a long downward slide, a protracted effort at joining his beloved wife. You know, extensive forests have been harvested for the production of critical studies of Edgar’s “bizarre” relationship with Virginia; rarely, if ever, does it occur to anyone that Edgar and Virginia might honestly have been in love, and that the difference in their ages might have been incidental.

Yet what is that final couple of years but a man grieving himself to death? Yes, Edgar approaches other women about possible marriage, but why do you think none of those proposals work out?

Not only is Edgar actively chasing his death, paddling furiously towards it on a river of alcohol; little known to him, death has noticed his pursuit, and responded by planting a black seed deep within his brain, a gift that is blossoming into a tumor. Most biographers have remained ignorant of this disease, but years after his death, Edgar’s body is exhumed—it doesn’t matter why; given who Edgar was, of course this was going to happen to him. During the examination of his remains, it’s noted that his brain is shrunken and hard. Anyone who knows about these things will tell you that the brain is one of the first organs to decay, which means that what those investigators found rattling around old Edgar’s cranium would not have been petrified gray matter. Cancer, however, is a much more durable beast; long after it’s killed you, a tumor hangs around to testify to its crime. Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to how long he’d had it, but by the time I’m talking about, Edgar is in a pretty bad way. He’s having trouble controlling the movements of his body, his speech; half the time he seems drunk, he’s stone cold sober.

There’s something else. Increasingly, wherever he turns his gaze, whatever he looks at flickers, and instead of, say, an orange resting on a plate, he sees a jumble of black lines approximating a sphere on a circle. It takes him longer to recall Vauglais’s experience in that Russian forest than you’d expect; the cancer, no doubt, devouring his memory. Sometimes the confusion of lines that’s replaced the streetlamp in front of him is itself replaced by blankness, by an absence that registers as a dull white space in the middle of things. It’s as if a painter took a palette knife and scraped the oils from a portion of their picture until all that remained was the canvas, slightly stained. At first, Edgar thinks there’s something wrong with his vision; when he understands what he’s experiencing, he speculates that the blank might be the result of his eyes’ inability to endure their own perception, that he might be undergoing some degree of what we would call hysterical blindness. As he’s continued to see that whiteness, though, he’s realized that he isn’t seeing less, but more. He’s seeing through to the surface those black lines are written on.

In the days immediately prior to his disappearance, Edgar’s perception undergoes one final change. For the slightest instant after that space has uncovered itself to him, something appears on it, a figure—a woman. Virginia, yes, as he saw her last, ravaged by tuberculosis, skeletally thin, dark hair in disarray, mouth and chin scarlet with the blood she’d hacked out of her lungs. She appears barefoot, wrapped in a shroud stained with dirt. Almost before he sees her, she’s gone, her place taken by whatever he’d been looking at to begin with.

Is it any surprise that, presented with this dull white surface, Edgar should fill it with Virginia? Her death has polarized him; she’s the lodestone that draws his thoughts irresistibly in her direction. With each glimpse of her he has, Edgar apprehends that he’s standing at the threshold of what could be an extraordinary chance. Although he’s discovered the secret of Prosper’s designs, discerned the nature of the Great Work, never once has it occurred to him that he might put that knowledge to use. Maybe he hasn’t really believed in it; maybe he’s suspected that, underneath it all, the effect of the various colors on Vauglais’s designs is some type of clever optical illusion. Now, though, now that there’s the possibility of gaining his beloved back—

Edgar spends that last week sequestered in a room in a boarding house a few streets up from that alley where he tripped over Prosper’s book. He’s arranged for his meals to be left outside his door; half the time, however, he leaves them untouched, and even when he takes the dishes into his room, he eats the bare minimum to sustain him. About midway through his stay, the landlady, a Mrs. Foster, catches sight of him as he withdraws into his room. His face is flushed, his skin slick with sweat, his clothes disheveled; he might be in the grip of a fever whose fingers are tightening around him with each degree it climbs. As his door closes, Mrs. Foster considers running up to it and demanding to speak to this man. The last thing she wants is for her boarding house to be known as a den of sickness. She has taken two steps forward when she stops, turns, and bolts downstairs as if the Devil himself were tugging her apron strings. For the remainder of the time this lodger is in his room, she will send one of the serving girls to deliver his meals, no matter their protests. Once the room stands unoccupied, she will direct a pair of those same girls to remove its contents—including the cheap bed—carry them out back, and burn them until nothing remains but a heap of ashes. The empty room is closed, locked, and removed from use for the rest of her time running that house, some twenty-two years.

I know: what did she see? What could she have seen, with the door shut? Perhaps it wasn’t what she saw; perhaps it was what she felt: the surface of things yielding, peeling away to what was beneath, beyond—the strain of a will struggling to score its vision onto that surface—the waver of the brick and mortar, of the very air around her, as it strained against this newness coming into being. How would the body respond to what could only register as a profound wrongness? Panic, you have to imagine, maybe accompanied by sudden nausea, a fear so intense as to guarantee a lifetime’s aversion to anything associated with its cause.

Had she opened that door, though, what sight would have confronted her? What would we see?

Nothing much—at least, that’s likely to have been our initial response. Edgar seated on the narrow bed, staring at the wall opposite him. Depending on which day it was, we would have noticed his shirt and pants looking more or less clean. Like Mrs. Foster, we would have remarked his flushed face, the sweat soaking his shirt; we would have heard his breathing, deep and hoarse. We might have caught his lips moving, might have guessed he was repeating Virginia’s name over and over again, but been unable to say for sure. Were we to guess he was in a trance, caught in an opium dream, aside from the complete and total lack of opium-related paraphernalia, we could be forgiven.

If we were to remain in that room with him—if we could stand the same sensation that sent Mrs. Foster running—it wouldn’t take us long to turn our eyes in the direction of Edgar’s stare. His first day there, we wouldn’t have noticed much if anything out of the ordinary. Maybe we would have wondered if the patch of bricks he was so focused on didn’t look just the slightest shade paler than its surroundings, before dismissing it as a trick of the light. Return two, three days later, and we would find that what we had attributed to mid-afternoon light blanching already-faded masonry is a phenomenon of an entirely different order. Those bricks are blinking in and out of sight. One moment, there’s a worn red rectangle, the next, there isn’t. What takes its place is difficult to say, because it’s back almost as fast as it was gone; although, after its return, the brick looks a bit less solid.. .less certain, you might say. Ragged around the edges, though not in any way you could put words to. All over that stretch of wall, bricks are going and coming and going. It almost looks as if some kind of code is spelling itself out using the stuff of Edgar’s wall as its pen and paper.

Were we to find ourselves in that same room, studying that same spot, a day later, we would be startled to discover a small area of the wall, four bricks up, four down, vanished. Where it was—let’s call what’s there—or what isn’t there—white. To tell the truth, it’s difficult to look at that spot—the eye glances away automatically, the way it does from a bright light. Should you try to force the issue, tears dilute your vision.

Return to Edgar’s room over the next twenty-four hours, and you would find that gap exponentially larger—from four bricks by four bricks to sixteen by sixteen, then from sixteen by sixteen to—basically, the entire wall. Standing in the doorway, you would have to raise your hand, shield your eyes from the dull whiteness in front of you. Blink furiously, squint, and you might distinguish Edgar in his familiar position, staring straight into that blank. Strain your gaze through the narrowest opening your fingers can make, and for the half a second until your head jerks to the side, you see a figure, deep within the white. Later, at a safe remove from Edgar’s room, you may attempt to reconstruct that form, make sense of your less-than-momentary vision. All you’ll be able to retrieve, however, is a pair of impressions, the one of something coalescing, like smoke filling up a jar, the other of thinness, like a child’s stick-drawing grown life-sized. For the next several months, not only your dreams, but your waking hours will be plagued by what you saw between your fingers. Working late at night, you will be overwhelmed by the sense that whatever you saw in that room is standing just outside the cone of light your lamp throws. Unable to help yourself, you’ll reach for the shade, tilt it back, and find… nothing, your bookcases. Yet the sensation won’t pass; although you can read the spines of the hardcovers ranked on your bookshelves, your skin won’t stop bristling at what you can’t see there.

What about Edgar, though? What image do his eyes find at the heart of that space? I suppose we should ask, What image of Virginia?

It—she changes. She’s thirteen, wearing the modest dress she married him in. She’s nine, wide-eyed as she listens to him reciting his poetry to her mother and her. She’s dead, wrapped in a white shroud. So much concentration is required to pierce through to the undersurface in the first place—and then there’s the matter of maintaining the aperture—that it’s difficult to find, let alone summon, the energy necessary to focus on a single image of Virginia. So the figure in front of him brushes a lock of dark hair out of her eyes, then giggles in a child’s high-pitched tones, then coughs and sprays scarlet blood over her lips and chin. Her mouth is pursed in thought; she turns to a knock on the front door; she thrashes in the heat of the disease that is consuming her. The more time that passes, the more Edgar struggles to keep his memories of his late wife separate from one another. She’s nine, standing beside her mother, wound in her burial cloth. She’s in her coffin, laughing merrily. She’s saying she takes him as her lawful husband, her mouth smeared with blood.

Edgar can’t help himself—he’s written, and read, too many stories about exactly this kind of situation for him not to be aware of all the ways it could go hideously wrong. Of course, the moment such a possibility occurs to him, it’s manifest in front of him. You know how it is: the harder you try to keep a pink elephant out of your thoughts, the more that animal cavorts center-stage. Virginia is obscured by white linen smeared with mud; where her mouth is, the shroud is red. Virginia is naked, her skin drawn to her skeleton, her hair loose and floating around her head as if she’s under water. Virginia is wearing the dress she was buried in, the garment and the pale flesh beneath it opened by rats. Her eyes—or the sockets that used to cradle them—are full of her death, of all she has seen as she was dragged out of the light down into the dark.

With each new monstrous image of his wife, Edgar strives not to panic. He bends what is left of his will toward summoning Virginia as she was at sixteen, when they held a second, public wedding. For an instant, she’s there, holding out her hand to him with that simple grace she’s displayed as long as he’s known her—and then she’s gone, replaced by a figure whose black eyes have seen the silent halls of the dead, whose ruined mouth has tasted delicacies unknown this side of the grave. This image does not flicker; it does not yield to other, happier pictures. Instead, it grows more solid, more definite. It takes a step towards Edgar, who is frantic, his heart thudding in his chest, his mouth dry. He’s trying to stop the process, trying to close the door he’s spent so much time and effort prying open, to erase what he’s written on that blankness. The figure takes another step forwards, and already, is at the edge of the opening. His attempts at stopping it are useless—what he’s started has accrued sufficient momentum for it to continue regardless of him. His lips are still repeating, “Virginia.”

When the—we might as well say, when Virginia places one gray foot onto the floor of Edgar’s room, a kind of ripple runs through the entire room, as if every last bit of it is registering the intrusion. How Edgar wishes he could look away as she crosses the floor to him. In a far corner of his brain that is capable of such judgments, he knows that this is the price for his hubris—really, it’s almost depressingly formulaic. He could almost accept the irony if he did not have to watch those hands dragging their nails back and forth over one another, leaving the skin hanging in pale strips; if he could avoid the sight of whatever is seething in the folds of the bosom of her dress; if he could shut his eyes to that mouth and its dark contents as they descend to his. But he can’t; he cannot turn away from his Proserpine as she rejoins him at last.

Four days prior to his death, Edgar is found on the street, delirious, barely-conscious. He never recovers. Right at the end, he rallies long enough to dictate a highly-abbreviated version of the story I’ve told you to a Methodist minister, who finds what he records so disturbing he sews it into the binding of the family Bible, where it will remain concealed for a century and a half.

As for what Edgar called forth—she walks out of our narrative and is not seen again.

It’s a crazy story. It makes the events of Vauglais’s life seem almost reasonable in comparison. If you were so inclined, I suppose you could ascribe Edgar’s experience in that rented room to an extreme form of auto-hypnosis which, combined with the stress on his body from his drinking and the brain tumor, precipitates a fatal collapse. In which case, the story I’ve told you is little more than an elaborate symptom. It’s the kind of reading a literary critic prefers; it keep the more… outré elements safely quarantined within the writer’s psyche.

Suppose, though, suppose. Suppose that all this insanity I’ve been feeding you isn’t a quaint example of early-nineteenth-century pseudoscience. Suppose that its interest extends well beyond any insights it might offer in interpreting “The Masque of the Red Death.” Suppose—let’s say the catastrophe that overtakes Edgar is the result of—we could call it poor planning. Had he paid closer attention to the details of Prospers history, especially to that sojourn in the catacombs, he would have recognized the difficulty—to the point of impossibility—of making his attempt alone. Granted, he was desperate. But there was a reason Vauglais took the members of his salon underground with him—to use as a source of power, a battery, as it were. They provided the energy; he directed it. Edgar’s story is a testament to what must have been a tremendous—an almost unearthly will. In the end, though, it wasn’t enough.

Of course, how could he have brought together a sufficient number of individuals, and where? By the close of his life, he wasn’t the most popular of fellows. Not to mention, he would have needed to expose the members of this hypothetical group to Prosper’s designs and their corresponding colors.

Speaking of which: pleasant as this violet has been, what do you say we proceed to the piece de resistance? Faceless lackeys, on my mark— Ahh. I don’t usually talk about these things, but you have no idea how much trouble this final color combination gave me. I mean, red and black gives you dark red, right? Right, except that for the design to achieve its full effect, putting up a dark red light won’t do. You need red layered over black—and a true black light, not ultraviolet. The result, though—I’m sure you’ll agree, it was worth sweating over. It’s like a picture painted in red on a black canvas, wouldn’t you say? And look what it does for the final image. It seems to be reaching right out of the screen for you, doesn’t it? Strictly speaking, Vauglais’s name for it, “Le Dessous,” the Underneath, isn’t quite grammatical French, but we needn’t worry ourselves over such details. There are times I think another name would be more appropriate: the Maw, perhaps, and then there are moments I find the Underneath perfect. You can see why I might lean towards calling it a mouth—the Cave would do, as well—except that the perspective’s all wrong. If this is a mouth, or a cave, we aren’t looking into it; we’re already inside, looking out.

Back to Edgar. As we’ve said, even had he succeeded in gathering a group to assist him in his pursuit, he would have had to find a way to introduce them to Prosper’s images and their colors. If he could have, he would have… reoriented them, their minds, the channels of their thoughts. Vauglais’s designs would have brought them closer to where they needed to be; they would have made available certain dormant faculties within his associates.

Even that would have left him with challenges, to be sure. Mesmerism, hypnosis, as Prosper himself discovered, is a delicate affair, one subject to such external variables as running out of lamp oil too soon. It would have been better if he could have employed some type of pharmacological agent, something that would have deposited them into a more useful state, something sufficiently concentrated to be delivered via a few bites of an innocuous food—a cookie, say, whose sweetness would mask any unpleasant taste, and which he could cajole his assistants to sample by claiming that his wife had baked them.

Then, if Edgar had been able to keep this group distracted while the cookies did their work—perhaps by talking to them about his writing—about the genesis of one of his stories, say, “The Masque of the Red Death”—if he had managed this far, he might have been in a position to make something happen, to perform the Great Work.

There’s just one more thing, and that’s the object for which Edgar would have put himself to all this supposed trouble: Virginia. I like to think I’m as romantic as the next guy, but honestly—you have the opportunity to rescript reality, and the best you can come up with is returning your dead wife to you? Talk about a failure to grasp the possibilities…

What’s strange—and frustrating—is that it’s all right there in “The Masque,” in Edgar’s own words. The whole idea of the Great Work, of Transumption, is to draw one of the powers that our constant, collective writing of the real consigns to abstraction across the barrier into physicality. Ideally, one of the members of that trinity Edgar named so well, Darkness and Decay and the Red Death, those who hold illimitable dominion over all. The goal is to accomplish something momentous, to shake the world to its foundations, not play out some hackneyed romantic fantasy. That was what Vauglais was up to, trying to draw into form the force that strips the flesh from our bones, that crumbles those bones to dust.

No matter. Edgar’s mistake still has its uses as a distraction, and a lesson. Not that it’ll do any of you much good. By now, I suspect few of you can hear what I’m saying, let alone understand it. I’d like to tell you the name of what I stirred into that cookie dough, but it’s rather lengthy and wouldn’t do you much good, anyway. I’d also like to tell you it won’t leave you permanently impaired, but that wouldn’t exactly be true. One of the consequences of its efficacy, I fear. If it’s any consolation, I doubt most of you will survive what’s about to follow. By my reckoning, the power I’m about to bring into our midst will require a good deal of… sustenance in order to establish a more permanent foothold here. I suspect this is of even less consolation, but I do regret this aspect of the plan I’m enacting. It’s just—once you come into possession of such knowledge, how can you not make use—full use of it?

You see, I’m starting at the top. Or at the beginning—before the beginning, really, before light burst across the perfect formlessness that was everything. I’m starting with Darkness, with something that was already so old at that moment of creation that it had long forgotten its identity. I plan to restore it. I will give myself to it for a guide, let it envelop me and consume you and run out from here in a flood that will wash this world away. I will give to Darkness a dominion more complete than it has known since it was split asunder.

Look—in the air—can you see it?

For Fiona

The post PseudoPod 701: Technicolor appeared first on PseudoPod.

May 02 2020

1hr 18mins

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PseudoPod 700: Hop Frog

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“Hop Frog” was first published in the March 7, 1849 Flag of Our Union.

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Ableism, fatphobia, sharpening the guillotines

Hop-Frog

by Edgar Allan Poe

I never knew anyone so keenly alive to a joke as the king was. He seemed to live only for joking. To tell a good story of the joke kind, and to tell it well, was the surest road to his favour. Thus it happened that his seven ministers were all noted for their accomplishments as jokers. They all took after the king, too, in being large, corpulent, oily men, as well as inimitable jokers. Whether people grow fat by joking, or whether there is something in fat itself which predisposes to a joke, I have never been quite able to determine; but certain it is that a lean joker is a rara avis in terris.

About the refinements, or, as he called them, the ‘ghost’ of wit, the king troubled himself very little. He had an especial admiration for breadth in a jest, and would often put up with length, for the sake of it. Over-niceties wearied him. He would have preferred Rabelais’ ‘Gargantua’ to the ‘Zadig’ of Voltaire: and, upon the whole, practical jokes suited his taste far better than verbal ones.

At the date of my narrative, professing jesters had not altogether gone out of fashion at court. Several of the great continental ‘powers’ still retain their ‘fools,’ who wore motley, with caps and bells, and who were expected to be always ready with sharp witticisms, at a moment’s notice, in consideration of the crumbs that fell from the royal table.

Our king, as a matter of course, retained his ‘fool.’ The fact is, he required something in the way of folly—if only to counterbalance the heavy wisdom of the seven wise men who were his ministers—not to mention himself.

His fool, or professional jester, was not only a fool, however. His value was trebled in the eyes of the king, by the fact of his being also a dwarf and a cripple. Dwarfs were as common at court, in those days, as fools; and many monarchs would have found it difficult to get through their days (days are rather longer at court than elsewhere) without both a jester to laugh with, and a dwarf to laugh at. But, as I have already observed, your jesters, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, are fat, round, and unwieldy—so that it was no small source of self-gratulation with our king that, in Hop-Frog (this was the fool’s name), he possessed a triplicate treasure in one person.

I believe the name ‘Hop-Frog’ was not that given to the dwarf by his sponsors at baptism, but it was conferred upon him, by general consent of the several ministers, on account of his inability to walk as other men do. In fact, Hop-Frog could only get along by a sort of interjectional gait—something between a leap and a wriggle—a movement that afforded illimitable amusement, and of course consolation, to the king, for (notwithstanding the protuberance of his stomach and a constitutional swelling of the head) the king, by his whole court, was accounted a capital figure.

But although Hop-Frog, through the distortion of his legs, could move only with great pain and difficulty along a road or floor, the prodigious muscular power which nature seemed to have bestowed upon his arms, by way of compensation for deficiency in the lower limbs, enabled him to perform many feats of wonderful dexterity, where trees or ropes were in question, or any thing else to climb. At such exercises he certainly much more resembled a squirrel, or a small monkey, than a frog.

I am not able to say, with precision, from what country Hop-Frog originally came. It was from some barbarous region, however, that no person ever heard of—a vast distance from the court of our king. Hop-Frog, and a young girl very little less dwarfish than himself (although of exquisite proportions, and a marvellous dancer), had been forcibly carried off from their respective homes in adjoining provinces, and sent as presents to the king, by one of his ever-victorious generals.

Under these circumstances, it is not to be wondered at that a close intimacy arose between the two little captives. Indeed, they soon became sworn friends. Hop-Frog, who, although he made a great deal of sport, was by no means popular, had it not in his power to render Trippetta many services; but she, on account of her grace and exquisite beauty (although a dwarf), was universally admired and petted; so she possessed much influence; and never failed to use it, whenever she could, for the benefit of Hop-Frog.

On some grand state occasion—I forgot what—the king determined to have a masquerade, and whenever a masquerade or any thing of that kind, occurred at our court, then the talents, both of Hop-Frog and Trippetta were sure to be called into play. Hop-Frog, in especial, was so inventive in the way of getting up pageants, suggesting novel characters, and arranging costumes, for masked balls, that nothing could be done, it seems, without his assistance.

The night appointed for the fete had arrived. A gorgeous hall had been fitted up, under Trippetta’s eye, with every kind of device which could possibly give eclat to a masquerade. The whole court was in a fever of expectation. As for costumes and characters, it might well be supposed that everybody had come to a decision on such points. Many had made up their minds (as to what roles they should assume) a week, or even a month, in advance; and, in fact, there was not a particle of indecision anywhere—except in the case of the king and his seven minsters. Why they hesitated I never could tell, unless they did it by way of a joke. More probably, they found it difficult, on account of being so fat, to make up their minds. At all events, time flew; and, as a last resort they sent for Trippetta and Hop-Frog.

When the two little friends obeyed the summons of the king they found him sitting at his wine with the seven members of his cabinet council; but the monarch appeared to be in a very ill humor. He knew that Hop-Frog was not fond of wine, for it excited the poor cripple almost to madness; and madness is no comfortable feeling. But the king loved his practical jokes, and took pleasure in forcing Hop-Frog to drink and (as the king called it) ‘to be merry.’

“Come here, Hop-Frog,” said he, as the jester and his friend entered the room; “swallow this bumper to the health of your absent friends, here Hop-Frog sighed, and then let us have the benefit of your invention. We want characters—characters, man—something novel—out of the way. We are wearied with this everlasting sameness. Come, drink! the wine will brighten your wits.”

Hop-Frog endeavored, as usual, to get up a jest in reply to these advances from the king; but the effort was too much. It happened to be the poor dwarf’s birthday, and the command to drink to his ‘absent friends’ forced the tears to his eyes. Many large, bitter drops fell into the goblet as he took it, humbly, from the hand of the tyrant.

“Ah! ha! ha!” roared the latter, as the dwarf reluctantly drained the beaker.— “See what a glass of good wine can do! Why, your eyes are shining already!”

Poor fellow! his large eyes gleamed, rather than shone; for the effect of wine on his excitable brain was not more powerful than instantaneous. He placed the goblet nervously on the table, and looked round upon the company with a half—insane stare. They all seemed highly amused at the success of the king’s ‘joke.’

“And now to business,” said the prime minister, a very fat man.

“Yes,” said the King; “Come lend us your assistance. Characters, my fine fellow; we stand in need of characters—all of us—ha! ha! ha!” and as this was seriously meant for a joke, his laugh was chorused by the seven.

Hop-Frog also laughed although feebly and somewhat vacantly.

“Come, come,” said the king, impatiently, “have you nothing to suggest?”

“I am endeavoring to think of something novel,” replied the dwarf, abstractedly, for he was quite bewildered by the wine.

“Endeavoring!” cried the tyrant, fiercely; “what do you mean by that? Ah, I perceive. You are Sulky, and want more wine. Here, drink this!” and he poured out another goblet full and offered it to the cripple, who merely gazed at it, gasping for breath.

“Drink, I say!” shouted the monster, “or by the fiends-”

The dwarf hesitated. The king grew purple with rage. The courtiers smirked. Trippetta, pale as a corpse, advanced to the monarch’s seat, and, falling on her knees before him, implored him to spare her friend.

The tyrant regarded her, for some moments, in evident wonder at her audacity. He seemed quite at a loss what to do or say—how most becomingly to express his indignation. At last, without uttering a syllable, he pushed her violently from him, and threw the contents of the brimming goblet in her face.

The poor girl got up the best she could, and, not daring even to sigh, resumed her position at the foot of the table.

There was a dead silence for about half a minute, during which the falling of a leaf, or of a feather, might have been heard. It was interrupted by a low, but harsh and protracted grating sound which seemed to come at once from every corner of the room.

“What—what—what are you making that noise for?” demanded the king, turning furiously to the dwarf.

The latter seemed to have recovered, in great measure, from his intoxication, and looking fixedly but quietly into the tyrant’s face, merely ejaculated:

“I—I? How could it have been me?”

“The sound appeared to come from without,” observed one of the courtiers. “I fancy it was the parrot at the window, whetting his bill upon his cage-wires.”

“True,” replied the monarch, as if much relieved by the suggestion; “but, on the honor of a knight, I could have sworn that it was the gritting of this vagabond’s teeth.”

Hereupon the dwarf laughed (the king was too confirmed a joker to object to any one’s laughing), and displayed a set of large, powerful, and very repulsive teeth. Moreover, he avowed his perfect willingness to swallow as much wine as desired. The monarch was pacified; and having drained another bumper with no very perceptible ill effect, Hop-Frog entered at once, and with spirit, into the plans for the masquerade.

“I cannot tell what was the association of idea,” observed he, very tranquilly, and as if he had never tasted wine in his life, “but just after your majesty, had struck the girl and thrown the wine in her face—just after your majesty had done this, and while the parrot was making that odd noise outside the window, there came into my mind a capital diversion—one of my own country frolics—often enacted among us, at our masquerades: but here it will be new altogether. Unfortunately, however, it requires a company of eight persons and-”

“Here we are!” cried the king, laughing at his acute discovery of the coincidence; “eight to a fraction—I and my seven ministers. Come! what is the diversion?”

“We call it,” replied the cripple, “the Eight Chained Ourang-Outangs, and it really is excellent sport if well enacted.”

“We will enact it,” remarked the king, drawing himself up, and lowering his eyelids.

“The beauty of the game,” continued Hop-Frog, “lies in the fright it occasions among the women.”

“Capital!” roared in chorus the monarch and his ministry.

“I will equip you as ourang-outangs,” proceeded the dwarf; “leave all that to me. The resemblance shall be so striking, that the company of masqueraders will take you for real beasts—and of course, they will be as much terrified as astonished.”

“Oh, this is exquisite!” exclaimed the king. “Hop-Frog! I will make a man of you.”

“The chains are for the purpose of increasing the confusion by their jangling. You are supposed to have escaped, en masse, from your keepers. Your majesty cannot conceive the effect produced, at a masquerade, by eight chained ourang-outangs, imagined to be real ones by most of the company; and rushing in with savage cries, among the crowd of delicately and gorgeously habited men and women. The contrast is inimitable!”

“It must be,” said the king: and the council arose hurriedly (as it was growing late), to put in execution the scheme of Hop-Frog.

His mode of equipping the party as ourang-outangs was very simple, but effective enough for his purposes. The animals in question had, at the epoch of my story, very rarely been seen in any part of the civilized world; and as the imitations made by the dwarf were sufficiently beast-like and more than sufficiently hideous, their truthfulness to nature was thus thought to be secured.

The king and his ministers were first encased in tight-fitting stockinet shirts and drawers. They were then saturated with tar. At this stage of the process, some one of the party suggested feathers; but the suggestion was at once overruled by the dwarf, who soon convinced the eight, by ocular demonstration, that the hair of such a brute as the ourang-outang was much more efficiently represented by flax. A thick coating of the latter was accordingly plastered upon the coating of tar. A long chain was now procured. First, it was passed about the waist of the king, and tied, then about another of the party, and also tied; then about all successively, in the same manner. When this chaining arrangement was complete, and the party stood as far apart from each other as possible, they formed a circle; and to make all things appear natural, Hop-Frog passed the residue of the chain in two diameters, at right angles, across the circle, after the fashion adopted, at the present day, by those who capture Chimpanzees, or other large apes, in Borneo.

The grand saloon in which the masquerade was to take place, was a circular room, very lofty, and receiving the light of the sun only through a single window at top. At night (the season for which the apartment was especially designed) it was illuminated principally by a large chandelier, depending by a chain from the centre of the sky-light, and lowered, or elevated, by means of a counter-balance as usual; but (in order not to look unsightly) this latter passed outside the cupola and over the roof.

The arrangements of the room had been left to Trippetta’s superintendence; but, in some particulars, it seems, she had been guided by the calmer judgment of her friend the dwarf. At his suggestion it was that, on this occasion, the chandelier was removed. Its waxen drippings (which, in weather so warm, it was quite impossible to prevent) would have been seriously detrimental to the rich dresses of the guests, who, on account of the crowded state of the saloon, could not all be expected to keep from out its centre; that is to say, from under the chandelier. Additional sconces were set in various parts of the hall, out of the way, and a flambeau, emitting sweet odor, was placed in the right hand of each of the Caryatides that stood against the wall—some fifty or sixty altogether.

The eight ourang-outangs, taking Hop-Frog’s advice, waited patiently until midnight (when the room was thoroughly filled with masqueraders) before making their appearance. No sooner had the clock ceased striking, however, than they rushed, or rather rolled in, all together—for the impediments of their chains caused most of the party to fall, and all to stumble as they entered.

The excitement among the masqueraders was prodigious, and filled the heart of the king with glee. As had been anticipated, there were not a few of the guests who supposed the ferocious-looking creatures to be beasts of some kind in reality, if not precisely ourang-outangs. Many of the women swooned with affright; and had not the king taken the precaution to exclude all weapons from the saloon, his party might soon have expiated their frolic in their blood. As it was, a general rush was made for the doors; but the king had ordered them to be locked immediately upon his entrance; and, at the dwarf’s suggestion, the keys had been deposited with him.

While the tumult was at its height, and each masquerader attentive only to his own safety (for, in fact, there was much real danger from the pressure of the excited crowd), the chain by which the chandelier ordinarily hung, and which had been drawn up on its removal, might have been seen very gradually to descend, until its hooked extremity came within three feet of the floor.

Soon after this, the king and his seven friends having reeled about the hall in all directions, found themselves, at length, in its centre, and, of course, in immediate contact with the chain. While they were thus situated, the dwarf, who had followed noiselessly at their heels, inciting them to keep up the commotion, took hold of their own chain at the intersection of the two portions which crossed the circle diametrically and at right angles. Here, with the rapidity of thought, he inserted the hook from which the chandelier had been wont to depend; and, in an instant, by some unseen agency, the chandelier-chain was drawn so far upward as to take the hook out of reach, and, as an inevitable consequence, to drag the ourang-outangs together in close connection, and face to face.

The masqueraders, by this time, had recovered, in some measure, from their alarm; and, beginning to regard the whole matter as a well-contrived pleasantry, set up a loud shout of laughter at the predicament of the apes.

“Leave them to me!” now screamed Hop-Frog, his shrill voice making itself easily heard through all the din. “Leave them to me. I fancy I know them. If I can only get a good look at them, I can soon tell who they are.”

Here, scrambling over the heads of the crowd, he managed to get to the wall; when, seizing a flambeau from one of the Caryatides, he returned, as he went, to the centre of the room-leaping, with the agility of a monkey, upon the kings head, and thence clambered a few feet up the chain; holding down the torch to examine the group of ourang-outangs, and still screaming: “I shall soon find out who they are!”

And now, while the whole assembly (the apes included) were convulsed with laughter, the jester suddenly uttered a shrill whistle; when the chain flew violently up for about thirty feet—dragging with it the dismayed and struggling ourang-outangs, and leaving them suspended in mid-air between the sky-light and the floor. Hop-Frog, clinging to the chain as it rose, still maintained his relative position in respect to the eight maskers, and still (as if nothing were the matter) continued to thrust his torch down toward them, as though endeavoring to discover who they were.

So thoroughly astonished was the whole company at this ascent, that a dead silence, of about a minute’s duration, ensued. It was broken by just such a low, harsh, grating sound, as had before attracted the attention of the king and his councillors when the former threw the wine in the face of Trippetta. But, on the present occasion, there could be no question as to whence the sound issued. It came from the fang-like teeth of the dwarf, who ground them and gnashed them as he foamed at the mouth, and glared, with an expression of maniacal rage, into the upturned countenances of the king and his seven companions.

“Ah, ha!” said at length the infuriated jester. “Ah, ha! I begin to see who these people are now!” Here, pretending to scrutinize the king more closely, he held the flambeau to the flaxen coat which enveloped him, and which instantly burst into a sheet of vivid flame. In less than half a minute the whole eight ourang-outangs were blazing fiercely, amid the shrieks of the multitude who gazed at them from below, horror-stricken, and without the power to render them the slightest assistance.

At length the flames, suddenly increasing in virulence, forced the jester to climb higher up the chain, to be out of their reach; and, as he made this movement, the crowd again sank, for a brief instant, into silence. The dwarf seized his opportunity, and once more spoke:

“I now see distinctly.” he said, “what manner of people these maskers are. They are a great king and his seven privy-councillors,—a king who does not scruple to strike a defenceless girl and his seven councillors who abet him in the outrage. As for myself, I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester—and this is my last jest.”

Owing to the high combustibility of both the flax and the tar to which it adhered, the dwarf had scarcely made an end of his brief speech before the work of vengeance was complete. The eight corpses swung in their chains, a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass. The cripple hurled his torch at them, clambered leisurely to the ceiling, and disappeared through the sky-light.

It is supposed that Trippetta, stationed on the roof of the saloon, had been the accomplice of her friend in his fiery revenge, and that, together, they effected their escape to their own country: for neither was seen again.

The post PseudoPod 700: Hop Frog appeared first on PseudoPod.

Apr 24 2020

37mins

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PseudoPod 699: Flash on the Borderlands LI: Quaint and Curious Forgotten Lore

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“A Dark Bird” was first published in Flush Fiction II, by Yard Dog Press in 2016

“Dr. Lambshead’s Dark Room” was first published in The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities in 2011

“The Conqueror Worm” was published in Graham’s January 1843


Spoiler Inside
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Dr. Lambshead’s Dark Room:

“I started my publishing career writing about Edgar Allan Poe, who has been a formative influence on my work since I was a child. I wrote an article in which I coined the term Poepathy to describe the uncanny and infectious influence he seems to have not only on US letters, but throughout the world. In writing it, I realized in diagnosing others I was diagnosing myself, and so “Dr. Lambshead’s Dark Room” became the satirical “therapy notes” for my own Poepathy.”

Alasdair’s Notes:
Beneath the Rising
https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/52806923-beneath-the-rising
Premee’s twitter
https://twitter.com/premeesaurus
Preemie’s interview on Breaking The Glass Slipper
http://www.breakingtheglassslipper.com/2020/03/12/cosmic-horror-with-premee-mohamed/

A Dark Bird

by Bradley H. Sinor

She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door.  The words of the poems echoed in her head.

She hesitated for only a moment before crossing the threshold, as the blue flames wrapped around her, sending a tingling cold into the deepest bits of her.

For the longest time there was nothing, finally in the distance came the sound of water gently lapping against the piers of a dock, the cold December winds reaching out onto the water. A dark bird of her desire circled near her.

“The one you seek is near,” said the creature.

Two men in the heavy jackets and caps of seamen shivered as she passed, one crossing himself and drawing deeper within his jacket. The other crossed himself, glancing up into the sky at the full moon.

“Why do you torment me?” she asked the bird.

The creature landed atop a broken hitching rail. The top bore a slight resemblance to a man’s head. It preened the ink dark feathers, then looked at her.

“You are the one who torments yourself, pulling yourself here beyond the barriers of time and space and desire. You found his words, his dreams and you want him, you want him as a part of yourself; but you can’t  have him, you know that as well as I,” said the bird.

In the distance was a tolling bell, marking the hour. The house she found herself standing in front of was small, two stories. She saw the small plate near the door, 203 Amity Street. The dark bird circled and landed on her shoulder.

It took her a long time before she could make herself reach up and rap on the door, three soft sounds and then nothing. For what seemed like hours she stood silently, watching the door; the sounds of the city distant even here.

When no answer to her knock came, she found herself walking into the house without invitation. The dark bird on her shoulder murmured sounds into her ear as she moved into the room and saw him.

He sat slumped in a worn leather chair, a pile of ancient volumes spread at his feet.

“Are you here, or do I dream again?” he asked without looking toward her.

“I am here,” she replied. “As for dreaming, who can say if this is your dream, mine or perhaps someone else’s?”

“Yet each time you come you take a bit of my soul with you when you leave,” he said. The dark bird made the leap from her shoulder to the arm of his chair, then flitted over to a bust that stood in the corner of the room. “Why do you torment me, Lenore? You know I have loved you, but you are always beyond my reach.”

“And you beyond mine,” she said, leaning forward to let her lips brush his cheek.  “Goodbye, Edgar.”

 Then, before he could speak, she turned and went back through the door. Outside the house a man in a long cape, white scarf and dark hat, with three roses and a bottle of cognac in his hand, stood.

“Lenore,” he said and offered her his arm. A moment later blue flames wrapped around them as the two walked on.

The man in the house remained unmoving in his chair as the distant church bell tolled midnight. He finally bestirred himself, taking a sheet of paper, a pen in his hand and began to write, speaking each word as his pen moved.

“Once upon a midnight dreary….’

Dr. Lambshead’s Dark Room

by Selena Chambers

About ten years ago, Dr. Lambshead published an article in the Psychomesmeric Quarterly about hypnotic techniques inherited from his grandfather, a great confidant of Herr Mesmer. Among Lambshead’s mesmeric family legacy was the Valdemar method that enabled the doctor, so he claimed, “to extract from even the most cavernous subconscious those diseases that afflicted the soul, as demonstrated in the mesmeric stories of Edgar Allan Poe.”

As a Poe scholar, the doctor’s claims intrigued me and I wrote him requesting a demonstration. I knew the good Doctor could not resist a challenge, so to further intrigue him I mentioned that I felt riddled with a disease of influence that was affecting my work and love life, and offered myself up as the proverbial guinea pig. Within a fortnight I received an invitation to his house, “the only place,” he wrote, “where the Valdemar method could be manifested.”

Surprisingly, Dr. Lambshead appeared to have no maid or butler, and was already waiting at the door when I arrived. An ancient but spry man in a tailored silk bathrobe, he was headed down the hallway before I could put my bags down and greet him.

“To the matter at hand,” he said. “Don’t tell me a thing. That is for the Dark Room to show.”

He waved me inside and led me to the back of the house where he pulled aside a faded Turkish rug to reveal a trap door that fell open into a dark and dusty staircase. He descended into that darkness, and I followed him down several flights, feeling my way around the rocky walls, until he suddenly halted and clapped his hands repeatedly. When he stopped clapping, several floating orbs illuminated the basement.

“Will-o-the-wisps,” Lambshead said, “from the Iberian coast. I caught them with one of Nabokov’s butterfly nets.” I looked at the floating lights which graduated from green to purple, blue to red like childhood’s LED sparklers. I held out my hand and one alighted on my finger—its touch cool as the Mediterranean.

“How…how do they…?”

“Float? Live? Glow?” He shrugged. “Curious, no?”

This response disappointed me. It was unlike a man of science to pass up a chance to explain away the world. He smiled: “Even in this century, there are still wonders beyond explanation. They are rare, but they do exist, and it has been my hobby, I suppose you could say, to collect all the world’s true curios, as you will see. But no more words for now unless prompted; it disrupts the process!”

We continued through the hallway, and the willo-the-wisps grew brighter as we walked through the cabinet until we entered a dark chamber, empty but with the exception of two worn Louis XVI chairs.

“Ah, now we can really begin.”

He sat in one chair and gestured for me to occupy the other. The will-o-the-wisps floated out of our hands and hovered between our eyes. They undulated, glowing and dimming in tune with my heart-beat that swooshed through my ears.

“I want you to watch the wisps,” he whispered, “and tell me: have you experienced these following symptoms: soaring soul, existential exigency, speaking in cryptically symbolic metaphor, vertigo caused by sublimity, vision heightened by chiaroscuro, dead-dwelling, or head-swelling?”

“Yes,” I said.

“To all?”

“Yes.”

“Hmmmm….” His disbelieving expression ebbed into a dare-to-hope.

The two will-o-wisps glowed blindingly blue and I became dizzy and hot, and the doctor and the wisps became double exposed, and somehow I was split twain by the sides until there were two of me. One sat in front of Lambshead and the undulating wisps, while the other, conscious and seeing, was free to traverse the room.

“Do you suffer from daydreaming reflex with reveries that include blackbirds, scents of an unseen censor, or aberrant alliterative applications?”

Beady eyes glowed from the wisps, and wings fluttered by my ears. I smelled dried flowers and cut grass, upturned earth and the fading waft of fabric softener. I looked at my sitting-self in the chair and heard her indolent “Yes.”

“What else do you see?”

The wisps left Lambshead and my sitting-self to illuminate the corners of the empty room where ebon bookcases grew from the walls and within them appeared objects that my sitting-self described: Jaundiced blueprints of a non-Euclidian pendulum; a stuffed cat with a hissing throat encircled in white fur; a fractured skull chilling a broken bottle of blood-thick sherry; a tailor’s mannequin wearing a white blood-soaked and dirt-streaked dressing gown, its neck a splintered pine plank engraved with claw marks.

Beside the cases stood a stuffed gorilla. I couldn’t help but touch its fur, which turned to feathers and fluttered to the ground, revealing the tarred and mal-formed skeleton of a dwarf. Through its eye socket a gold beetle climbed out and over to a shelf that held a jar of putrescence and nestled itself in an open locket containing a strand of blonde hair speckled black.

At the very bottom of the bookshelves were several jorums filled with animated landscapes: tiny ships thrust between a maelstrom pint; a littoral liter with a weeping willow tree overlooking a craggy shore; and a quart of electrified clouds in the shape of women hovering over an abandoned manse, crying dust and leaves.

“What are these?” I asked Lambshead. From his chair he looked up to the ceiling, unsure of my voice’s source.

“What do they look like?” he asked my sitting-self. I heard her describe the jorums and he smiled.

“Mood,” he spoke into the ether, “They are jars of mood.”

I squatted at the bookshelf and selected one containing the cosmos. Several minute stars swam like strawberry seeds within a phosphorescent jam. They churned and congealed into the sun heating the glass. It burned my hand and I dropped it. With a loud bang, it exploded on the floor, incinerating all within the jar and melting the glass, which pooled and cooled into a Bristol blue fetus.

Before I could retrieve it, I heard Lambshead command me awake and suddenly I was back in the chair—whole—and subject to his sherry-sweet breath. The bookshelves, the taxidermy, curios and jars were all gone, but on the ground remained the glass fetus, which the doctor rushed to rescue.

He coddled it in his palm. “This—this is what ails you!”

“A child?”

“Of the imagination, yes. You thought you had a disease of influence, but it is much, much worse. You have a disease of the imagination, probably from too much Poe. But don’t worry, this here is your cure.”

“I thought you said it was what ails me?”

“You are cured,” he said, ignoring me. “And I have another child for my cabinet!” He waved the wisps away and they dimmed in rejection. Before I could ask what the other children were, he rushed me from the basement and out of his house.

I did not see where he kept the Dark Room’s off-spring, and I suppose now I never will, but after I left Lambshead and his curious cabinet, I admit I felt a lot lighter. Before booting me off the steps, he gave me permission to write of my disease, which seemed to ameliorate my condition more.

Having been able to resume a normal life, I am forever indebted to that cabinet and to Dr. Lambshead. When I read of his death, just three years later, I mourned not only the loss of that great man, but also of his dark room and its soul-ware nursery that has inevitably become overexposed and returned to the ether.

The Conqueror Worm

by Edgar Allan Poe

Lo! ’t is a gala night

Within the lonesome latter years!

An angel throng, bewinged, bedight

In veils, and drowned in tears,

Sit in a theatre, to see

A play of hopes and fears,

While the orchestra breathes fitfully

The music of the spheres.

Mimes, in the form of God on high,

Mutter and mumble low,

And hither and thither fly—

Mere puppets they, who come and go

At bidding of vast formless things

That shift the scenery to and fro,

Flapping from out their Condor wings

Invisible Wo!

That motley drama—oh, be sure

It shall not be forgot!

With its Phantom chased for evermore

By a crowd that seize it not,

Through a circle that ever returneth in

To the self-same spot,

And much of Madness, and more of Sin,

And Horror the soul of the plot.

But see, amid the mimic rout,

A crawling shape intrude!

A blood-red thing that writhes from out

The scenic solitude!

It writhes!—it writhes!—with mortal pangs

The mimes become its food,

And seraphs sob at vermin fangs

In human gore imbued.

Out—out are the lights—out all!

And, over each quivering form,

The curtain, a funeral pall,

Comes down with the rush of a storm,

While the angels, all pallid and wan,

Uprising, unveiling, affirm

That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”

And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.

The post PseudoPod 699: Flash on the Borderlands LI: Quaint and Curious Forgotten Lore appeared first on PseudoPod.

Apr 17 2020

31mins

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PseudoPod 698: Of Marrow and Abomination – Narration Only

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PseudoPod 698: Of Marrow and Abomination – Narration Only is a PseudoPod original.

Spoiler Inside SelectShow Montauk: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montauk_Project
USS Eldridge: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Eldridge#Philadelphia_Experiment
Gideon Falls: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gideon_Falls
Tanis: http://tanispodcast.com/

Of Marrow and Abomination

by Morgan Sylvia

I am very young when I first dream of the ruined barn.

The barn is nothing more than a burnt-out husk in the northern woods. It stands alone in an overgrown meadow, a blackened shell of rotted shingles and charred, cracked timbers, its weathered grey boards standing in stark contrast to the golden hayfields around it. The northeast is peppered with such ruins. Built by hand, not machine, the old barns are silent, forgotten monuments of a lost age, one where horses, not cars, carried men through the thick, tangled woods, and where woodstoves rather than furnaces kept away the biting winter cold.

It was initially repurposed as a numbers station, a clandestine radio station that broadcasts coded messages to spies via short-wave radio transmissions. Later, it became something else. A black site, of sorts. By then, the Cold War had ended, and we had clawed our way greedily into the information age.

I wonder now if they understood what they were doing, those Cold War doctors with their shiny shoes and thick glasses and slicked-back hair. They chose this spot, no doubt, because it was both isolated and unremarkable. They wanted the space and freedom to explore their madnesses, their alchemy, far away from prying eyes, in a place where only beasts and forgotten ghosts could see. I wonder if it ever occurred to them that the abominations created here would never be contained. They saw themselves, no doubt, as pioneers, inventors. In truth, they were sorcerers as much as scientists, heirs to Crowley and Agathodaemon as much as to Newton and Einstein and Hawking.

They are dead now. The darklings gnaw on their skeletons.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions and the corpses of men like them.

And of her? The dead thing that waits in the shadows below the barn’s charred roof, dreaming of static and decay?

This is the tale of her awakening, as much as it is of my own.

She was human once, first an orphan—like me—and then a young nurse jumping at a job that paid in a week more than she usually made in a year. She likely did not think overmuch about the papers of confidentiality, the releases she signed, though those of us born to the world of cell phones and internet scams would have seen red flags in the convoluted language and restrictions. She—like her cohorts—was bound to secrecy. Her name was Anna, but they relegated her identity to a number.

She isn’t in the early dreams. Actually, there are no people in the initial dreams. No animals. No sound. Nothing happens, at first. The visions are only fleeting glimpses of a single moment in time. Barn and landscape remain static and unchanging, consistent as a painting, untouched by wind or weather. Yet even as a child, I sense something sinister about the barn’s blackened shadows and rotted beams.

The dreams follow me through a succession of foster homes and boarding schools. Over time, the scene slowly comes to life. The grass moves beneath charnel winds. Seasons change. Strange colors shimmer in the sky. Then the barn begins dragging me toward it. My feet hover over the earth, and I am drawn to the ruin like a fish caught in a line, pulled ever closer, dream by dream. As I approach the barn door, the world comes alive. In summer, I move through swarming clouds of shiny green flies. In winter, snow and freezing rain part before me.

I sense that the shadows contain something hideous, something monstrous. Dread flows through my body like molten lead, tickling my stomach, pouring salt into my limbs. But I am powerless, an insect caught in a web.

In one dream, a single fly approaches me on iridescent wings. The buzz it produces tears another barrier loose. Where there was once only silence, now there is sound. White-noise static rises up around me, deafening, filling the air. A disembodied voice, rattling like dry bones, slips through my thoughts, repeating a series of numbers again and again.

Four six seven nine

Four six seven nine

Four six seven nine

A pale figure appears in the crooked doorway. She wears a necklace of teeth and a tattered nurse’s dress that was once white, but is now a dusty, colorless grey. Dull, matted hair falls over her shoulders in thick ropy strands. Her face is only a skull.

I wake gasping for breath, my heart pounding.

Every night, the dream becomes more real. I withdraw from my friends, isolate myself, submerge myself in art. I live not in flesh and blood, but in paper and pencil, ink and paint.

The dreams continue.

I don’t yet understand what she is, a ghost trapped in static, a soul caught between two planes. But I soon learn that she is not bound to the rules of the natural world. Mirrors reflect her face, rather than mine. I see her walking behind me, a reflection cast in a classroom mirror or a gym pool. Her eyes are sometimes milky and clouded, sometimes black and empty, sometimes blood red and wet. I grow accustomed to the way the air chills when she appears. I learn her scent, which is damp soil and cinder.

Eventually, the dream brings me into the barn.

It looks, at first, as one would expect. Sunlight filters through spaces between weathered boards. Piles of debris obscure the dirt floor. In corners, and in the bright roofless area, patches of weeds struggle toward the sun. Oddly, the building’s interior has been reinforced with stronger wood. This isn’t to make it functional. The barn will never again contain horses or cattle, gentle creatures with eyes like pools of chocolate, their soft whiskered noses sniffing for treats. It is but a prop, a cover for whatever waits beneath the trap door in its center. The support is only to keep it standing.

The transmission changes.

She quotes ancient Druid bards, leaving the words of Amergin etched into the frost on my window as winter presses against the walls. I am God who fashions Fire for a Head. Who but I announces the Ages of the Moon? Something in my atoms shrivels and changes. My soul withers and blackens at the sound of her voice.

In the dream, the sky turns red.

One night I wake screaming, gasping for air, my entire body numb, only to find that the dream has bled into my reality. A single, charred piece of wood sits on my nightstand. Beside it rests a clavicle. I stare at these objects for a long time, questions bubbling up through my brain. The clavicle is misshapen. The bone bulges, revealing a seam where the bones grew fast and unnatural.

I open the window. A warm summer wind moves the curtains. Everything smells of blood and rust. I toss the things into the alley below. Feral dogs immediately investigate.

When I flip on the TV, her laughter escapes a newscaster’s mouth.

Some boundary has been breached. I am never able to identify what line I crossed, what date or milestone was reached. But after that, I often hear static, like the sound of snow on a television set. Behind it, her disembodied voice reads sequences of numbers and the occasional random phrase. Once, she quotes Shakespeare: Hell is empty and all the devils are here. Another time, she offers the words of Aleister Crowley: Science is always discovering odd scraps of magical wisdom and making a tremendous fuss about its cleverness.

The spies who could have made sense of these things are dead. One of them is missing a clavicle.

My world changes, subtly. I feel her watching me. Strange occurrences plague me. The barn refuses to stay contained in nightmares. I see it in movies, a still blipping past in the midst of a scene. It appears in books and on posters and album covers. A pasta box, one time. I glimpse its forlorn, abandoned husk in paintings and in photos on my phone. Once, I spot it out of the corner of my eye in a field I pass daily on my way to work.

I hear her voice on the radio, coming through waves of static. On the phone, in the midst of a call to a gallery, an insurance agent, a pizza delivery place. Sometimes her transmissions are nonsensical, just seemingly random repetitions of numbers. Occasionally, there is music behind her, warped carnival sounds, organ music, a polka. Once, a child’s jingle, a cheerful ditty about the black plague: Ring around the rosy.

I find a stunning replica of the barn on my sketchpad, drawn in charcoal.

I never use charcoal.

My work grows erratic. Colors run and bleed together, hues of death and rot. I wonder if I am mad, but I have learned to fear the hospitals, the men in white coats with designer shoes and laser-corrected vision and perfectly dyed hair. They, too, walk the line between magic and science, creation and destruction.

She leaves me bloody teeth and dead birds. She writes messages to my broken soul, words and formulas scratched into the pollen on my windshield or the steam on my bathroom mirror. Bloody fingerprints on a book I’m reading. A pile of teeth on my nightstand. A mound of abnormal fingerbones, laid out in a strange, runic shape in my bathtub, part of some alien alphabet, perhaps. Lovers flee from her macabre gifts. The first few refuse my calls, my broken apologies. After that, I no longer bother trying.

I wake one day to find her name etched in blood on my stomach. I write back, in ash and lipstick, in paint and colored pencil. I leave my replies on finished canvasses, commissioned ones even.

What do you want?

She never answers.

The next day, I see colors I never perceived before. The transmission, which I now hear coming from lamps, from unplugged radios, from my cell phone, changes again. I am the queen of every hive. She has begun to favor Amergin. I wonder if he, too, looked up at the night sky and saw an endless abyss. I wonder if the ancient druids broke the code of molecules and DNA and portals. I understand, by then, that this is what they wanted, the scientists, before their minds and souls burst under the pressure of infinite secrets and cosmic mysteries.

She is strongest under the new moon, when the skies are black, lightless caverns.

In the next dream, a trapdoor opens on the barn’s dirt floor. Grated iron stairs lead down into utter blackness, where rusting metal doors line a corridor that was once stark and clean and sterile. The paint is peeling and rotted.

The dream pulls me into the past, to the day Anna arrived here. I see her standing at the door, on the border between the golden field and the nightmare ahead, a hard-shell suitcase in her hand. She wears thick nurse’s shoes, and clutches a string of useless prayer beads. She kisses the beads for luck, and then descends the stairs below the trapdoor, leaving the sunlight behind.

I win awards for my painted depiction of the scene.

I draw the decay, the succession of events, to soundtracks of static and numbers. Her eyes turn white, her skin ash-grey. She wears a crown of fingerbones and a dress of teeth. Antennae sprout from her forehead, picking up signals from the cosmos. In her hand, a scepter made of someone’s femur.

She whispers oblivion into my sleep. I wake seeing data in the shadows, static in the clouds. White noise hums through my fractured thoughts. Screams burst apart in my mouth, scaring the crows from my window.

She speaks to me in the next dream: not in codes or static this time, but words.

They chose him, she says, because he had no family. He’d seen too much in the war. Too much blood. Too much death. Too much pain. They left him on the street, another destitute soul. No one would believe him, if he ever tried to say what happened here. No one would care. He wasn’t the only one. I found shallow graves in the woods. And then there were the others … the darklings. They, too, died here. Once, the wolves found one of their bodies. The remains were not human. Not entirely, anyway. After that, they burned the corpses.

She stares at me with filmy, clouded eyes.

It was his eyes that drew me to him. Green as the grass in that meadow. Deep as the sea. When I saw what they were doing to him, I tried to stop it. I knew it was wrong. But there was only one way out. I chose my fate the moment I set him free. But it was too late. He was already changing. They chased him through cold forests with guns and dogs. By morning, only ash and bone remained of him. I realized what I had done when I signed those forms. I sold my soul, my flesh, my future. I had no protection against their rage. They knew why I had released him. The test left little doubt. But they chose us all for the same reasons. We were all alone. I became the experiment.

For a moment, I see her as she was. Her eyes are like mine.

I paint his death. A full moon sits bloated in the sky above an autumn forest. This is not the autumn that blazes with color in October, but the fall of November, cold and drab and colorless. Men in uniform bark orders above the baying of dogs and the sharp report of gunfire. Bullets and flashlight beams cut through dark trees.

The thing they shot and burned in those woods was no longer human.

I wake with tears streaming down my face and truth—hideous, blasphemous truth—crawling through the blackest depths of my soul. I spend years trying desperately to find my birth mother. The records are sealed and classified. All I learn is that my birth certificate was signed in the north, in a remote county at the edge of the boreal forest.

I don’t see her for a long time, after that. I convince myself that the dreams were only dreams, that the clavicle and other incidents were hallucinations. Madness is a comfort and a lie.

And then one day, after long seasons of peace, I find a heap of teeth on my windowsill. Static rises from the pile of molars and canines, whispering to me across oblivion.

Six five three two four.

I am the tomb of all hope, the queen of all hives

Six five three two four.

I wake to find her standing beside my bed, her colorless eyes staring at me in the shadows. The voice of a long-dead druid speaks through her lips.

Who is the troop, the god who fashions edges in a fortress of gangrene?

My thoughts become salt, formless, granular, and white. I remember nothing more of that night.

I have a gallery showing the next day. As I pack my car, I realize that two of the ocean scenes I chose for the show now depict the barn. I put them in the trunk anyway and drive off, my thoughts sluggish and heavy. Suddenly I realize I don’t recognize my surroundings. This makes no sense. The gallery is only a few miles away. I haven’t left the city or the interstate. But somehow the road has changed from a separated six-lane city highway to a two-lane country road.

I slow down, uneasy.

After a few more miles, I am in the boondocks. There are no buildings here, no roads or driveways, just empty forest and the occasional bog. The area looks vaguely familiar. Dread turns to nausea in the pit of my stomach.

The barn sits around the next curve.

Terror rises up through me, clutching my windpipe with an icy grip. I slam on the brakes, bringing the car to a screeching stop. Then I turn, tires squealing, and race back the way I came. I floor it going past the barn, and watch it shrink in my rear-view mirror. But escape isn’t that easy. Instead of finding my way back to the highway, there is again the curve leading to a familiar field. Somehow I am approaching the barn again.

I try to escape two more times before I give up and stop the car. When the engine dies, silence folds over me like a blanket. Or a funeral shroud. The air is thick and heavy. The distant buzz of tree frogs and birds fades away. Silence hangs thick above the fields of hay and goldenrod. The radio tower in the woods looks primordial, a spine reaching into the abyss above.

Something small and chitinous crawls over my arm, emitting waves of static. Across the meadow, dark shapes gather at the treeline, clinging to the shadows. They are mad things, unholy. They should not exist but in nightmares.

I open my trunk, looking for a weapon; a knife, a screwdriver, anything useful. They watch me silently as I take out a flashlight. Their likenesses stare at me from my paintings. When I walk toward the barn, they howl, singing runes into the wind. The sound is beautiful and unearthly. It rises over the trees, drifting up into the cosmos. A murder of crows flies overhead, darkening the skies as they flee. They know better than to stay here.

I walk toward the barn. The wind smells of ozone and death.

I pause at the entrance, on the border between shadow and sunlight. Inside, the scent of rich dirt fills my lungs. I take a shaky step forward, and then another. Something bites my ankle, scuttling over my flip-flop. The trapdoor waits. Beneath, metal stairs lead into a pit of darkness. I look back at the door. They are there, blocking it.

She is waiting for me in the darkness below.

She has changed.

Her arms have become tentacles. Her skin—what I can see of it—is paper-thin and mottled with green spots. Hook-like talons tip her elongated fingers, and a single, thick horn envelops the back of her skull, like an Elizabethan collar.

She brings me deeper and deeper into the shadows beneath the barn, leading me down a forgotten hallway to a chamber piled high with bones. Some are still wet, glistening with blood and sinew. Ancient radio equipment sits in the corner, covered with layers of dust. I reach out and turn the radio on. It shouldn’t work without a power source. But it does. Her voice crackles through the speakers, wrapped in static. Her words are bloody and gelatinous. I need calcium now, she says, and collagen and marrow.

I look around. An antiquated reel-to-reel sits in one room. Others contain more scientific things, beakers and vials and broken glass jars. Then there are the cells. Their walls are splattered with foul dark stains. Death and madness hang in the air. The place reeks of coldness and precision.

They wanted to experiment, she says, in a burst of pink noise, with the very fabric of reality. They wanted to send a soul—a spy—through a radio transmission. Instead, they tore a rip in our world, and opened a door to places beyond time, where the last trace of light falls into the endless abyss. They were behind what happened with the USS Eldridge, you know. They silenced that. But I, I was special. I was chosen. I saw the face of eternity when I looked into the portal.

Things slither away from the light as I approach her. My feet crunch on beetles and worms, popping the decaying organs of man and beast. Filth squishes between my toes.

You were born here, she tells me.

In that moment, my soul splits open and escapes its shell, like a seed bursting apart for the plant within to grow.

Her voice fills the shadows.

They tried to carve the knowledge out of us with sharp steel things. They drew nightmares on our eyes, and trapped our screams in shiny jars. They dissected our fear, our pain, our hunger, and created alchemical formulas for our terrors. I don’t know everything that they were trying to do, those men in white coats, only that they dealt with portals and vortexes. Things they wanted no one to see.

A third eye erupts from her face, pus-filled and glistening with foul liquid. She raises her tentacles, and I see the egg sacs glistening beneath her arms. Her nose has become a beak, hooked and sharp. Her carapace is black and shiny, like onyx.

I look up into the sky—which I can see through the ground and roof above me—and see the face of eternity. It is monstrous. It is magnificent.

Her voice caresses my mind, a spider’s touch.

This is the beginning of your death. And of your rule.

The sound of static roars into my brain, scrambling my thoughts. Visions burst in my mind, blooms of fire and death. I should run. I should fight. Instead, I stand there, weak and broken, melting. She opens her scaly arms, and I fall into them, sobbing.

The word Mother tastes like blood on my tongue.

Something cold pierces my flesh.

I fall to my knees, suddenly hot and dizzy. I vomit a dark green bile that smokes and steams. White noise rushes through my veins, pounding in my ears.

She retreats to the shadows of a tunnel she has burrowed into the ground.

By the next morning, my arms and legs are covered with angry red blisters. They turn yellow in the center, while the edges darken to black and green. My tongue splits. A protrusion erupts from my forehead. The carbuncles keep growing, swelling with fluid and nightmares. My hair falls out. Cataracts cloud my eyes. Lesions block my ear canals. A thick horn grows around the back of my skull. Like hers, it cradles my head like an Elizabethan collar or Triceratops horn. I see with my new eye, which rests on a stalk above my head. I hear with the antennae that burst out of my skull.

The skin falls from my face. She picks it up and eats it, licking her claws.

She is pleased. She gives me bones to eat. I bite into dry, dusty femurs that splinter into shards in my mouth, suck marrow out of finger bones. It tastes oily and decadent. I swallow knowledge in fatty, gelatinous lumps. I can identify individual molecules now. I see both on a cellular level and on a galactic. They are the same, in varying proportions.

I find the records she saved for me in a rusted file cabinet. From them, I glean her story. Most of the papers are yellow with age. They crumble to dust at my touch. Some she encased in plastic, and only these survived the blood days and the seasons after them. I burn them after I read them. The words are seared into my brain. They remain there today, tucked in somewhere in that vortex of grey matter, membrane, and mystery.

Together we reopen the portal.

I give birth beneath the new moon. Screams split my lungs. My eyes rupture and run down my face in streams of warm, salty gel. My boils burst, and beautiful monsters crawl out of the pustules. Static crackles through the air as the transmission starts. She calls to celestial abominations, celebrating the birth of the darklings, broadcasting coded destruction into the night sky.

Grow, I whisper to my children. Grow and breed. The world will be yours one day.

They scuttle into the darkness, watching me with blood black eyes.

She leaves me skeletons to feed them with. Every day, a fresh pile appears at the door of the cell I have chosen. We save the bones of the men in white coats for special occasions. I discover some of the old recordings: random sequences of numbers read by what sounds like a young woman, the audio distorted by strange, staticky buzzes. I recognize her voice immediately.

Seasons of blood and madness.

I hide in the forest, watching occasional cars pass, the smell of exhaust sharp and pungent in my snout. My children grow. I bring them to the sea, to the desert, tenderly carrying them in wet skulls, in pockets of flesh, in my blisters, in my wounds. The others come and help, my brethren, the silent monstrosities waiting in the wood. They are quiet and meticulous, their pupil-less eyes pools of oblivion. I sense their thoughts, which they cast at me in clouds of white noise. They dream only of death, of ripe flesh tearing and bursting beneath their fangs. I speak to them in waves of static, alchemical patterns, the song of molecules and elements. My words travel through their cells. My thoughts explode in their flesh. My dreams burn in their blood and fester in their marrow. They feast on bones, and watch the night skies with eyes grown on stalks from their misshapen heads. They bring me gifts of bone and offal as blood fills their footsteps and their shadows. They are beautiful. They are horrendous. They are oblivion.

One day, they will blot out the sun and the blue sky will go dark forever.

One day, they will crack the moon and the dead clouds will shed the last of their color.

One day, we will shatter the banshee winds into pieces and chew the bones of the last human being.

I hover over the ancient radio, speaking to my scattered kin. Humanity has failed, I tell them. It is time for our kind. Night after night, I send the messages out, whispering visions of death and decay. She always wanted me to take over this sacred duty. I realize that when I eat her bones. The secrets are in her marrow, which is sweet and rich.

By spring, the machines have fallen silent, and the wind no longer carries the sound of human voices. My final transmission crosses an empty night sky, riding waves of static through the endless abyss.

I am the tomb of all hope, the queen of all hives.

The post PseudoPod 698: Of Marrow and Abomination – Narration Only appeared first on PseudoPod.

Apr 12 2020

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PseudoPod 698: Of Marrow and Abomination

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PseudoPod 698: Of Marrow and Abomination is a PseudoPod original.

Spoiler Inside SelectShow Montauk: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montauk_Project
USS Eldridge: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Eldridge#Philadelphia_Experiment
Gideon Falls: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gideon_Falls
Tanis: http://tanispodcast.com/

Of Marrow and Abomination

by Morgan Sylvia

I am very young when I first dream of the ruined barn.

The barn is nothing more than a burnt-out husk in the northern woods. It stands alone in an overgrown meadow, a blackened shell of rotted shingles and charred, cracked timbers, its weathered grey boards standing in stark contrast to the golden hayfields around it. The northeast is peppered with such ruins. Built by hand, not machine, the old barns are silent, forgotten monuments of a lost age, one where horses, not cars, carried men through the thick, tangled woods, and where woodstoves rather than furnaces kept away the biting winter cold.

It was initially repurposed as a numbers station, a clandestine radio station that broadcasts coded messages to spies via short-wave radio transmissions. Later, it became something else. A black site, of sorts. By then, the Cold War had ended, and we had clawed our way greedily into the information age.

I wonder now if they understood what they were doing, those Cold War doctors with their shiny shoes and thick glasses and slicked-back hair. They chose this spot, no doubt, because it was both isolated and unremarkable. They wanted the space and freedom to explore their madnesses, their alchemy, far away from prying eyes, in a place where only beasts and forgotten ghosts could see. I wonder if it ever occurred to them that the abominations created here would never be contained. They saw themselves, no doubt, as pioneers, inventors. In truth, they were sorcerers as much as scientists, heirs to Crowley and Agathodaemon as much as to Newton and Einstein and Hawking.

They are dead now. The darklings gnaw on their skeletons.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions and the corpses of men like them.

And of her? The dead thing that waits in the shadows below the barn’s charred roof, dreaming of static and decay?

This is the tale of her awakening, as much as it is of my own.

She was human once, first an orphan—like me—and then a young nurse jumping at a job that paid in a week more than she usually made in a year. She likely did not think overmuch about the papers of confidentiality, the releases she signed, though those of us born to the world of cell phones and internet scams would have seen red flags in the convoluted language and restrictions. She—like her cohorts—was bound to secrecy. Her name was Anna, but they relegated her identity to a number.

She isn’t in the early dreams. Actually, there are no people in the initial dreams. No animals. No sound. Nothing happens, at first. The visions are only fleeting glimpses of a single moment in time. Barn and landscape remain static and unchanging, consistent as a painting, untouched by wind or weather. Yet even as a child, I sense something sinister about the barn’s blackened shadows and rotted beams.

The dreams follow me through a succession of foster homes and boarding schools. Over time, the scene slowly comes to life. The grass moves beneath charnel winds. Seasons change. Strange colors shimmer in the sky. Then the barn begins dragging me toward it. My feet hover over the earth, and I am drawn to the ruin like a fish caught in a line, pulled ever closer, dream by dream. As I approach the barn door, the world comes alive. In summer, I move through swarming clouds of shiny green flies. In winter, snow and freezing rain part before me.

I sense that the shadows contain something hideous, something monstrous. Dread flows through my body like molten lead, tickling my stomach, pouring salt into my limbs. But I am powerless, an insect caught in a web.

In one dream, a single fly approaches me on iridescent wings. The buzz it produces tears another barrier loose. Where there was once only silence, now there is sound. White-noise static rises up around me, deafening, filling the air. A disembodied voice, rattling like dry bones, slips through my thoughts, repeating a series of numbers again and again.

Four six seven nine

Four six seven nine

Four six seven nine

A pale figure appears in the crooked doorway. She wears a necklace of teeth and a tattered nurse’s dress that was once white, but is now a dusty, colorless grey. Dull, matted hair falls over her shoulders in thick ropy strands. Her face is only a skull.

I wake gasping for breath, my heart pounding.

Every night, the dream becomes more real. I withdraw from my friends, isolate myself, submerge myself in art. I live not in flesh and blood, but in paper and pencil, ink and paint.

The dreams continue.

I don’t yet understand what she is, a ghost trapped in static, a soul caught between two planes. But I soon learn that she is not bound to the rules of the natural world. Mirrors reflect her face, rather than mine. I see her walking behind me, a reflection cast in a classroom mirror or a gym pool. Her eyes are sometimes milky and clouded, sometimes black and empty, sometimes blood red and wet. I grow accustomed to the way the air chills when she appears. I learn her scent, which is damp soil and cinder.

Eventually, the dream brings me into the barn.

It looks, at first, as one would expect. Sunlight filters through spaces between weathered boards. Piles of debris obscure the dirt floor. In corners, and in the bright roofless area, patches of weeds struggle toward the sun. Oddly, the building’s interior has been reinforced with stronger wood. This isn’t to make it functional. The barn will never again contain horses or cattle, gentle creatures with eyes like pools of chocolate, their soft whiskered noses sniffing for treats. It is but a prop, a cover for whatever waits beneath the trap door in its center. The support is only to keep it standing.

The transmission changes.

She quotes ancient Druid bards, leaving the words of Amergin etched into the frost on my window as winter presses against the walls. I am God who fashions Fire for a Head. Who but I announces the Ages of the Moon? Something in my atoms shrivels and changes. My soul withers and blackens at the sound of her voice.

In the dream, the sky turns red.

One night I wake screaming, gasping for air, my entire body numb, only to find that the dream has bled into my reality. A single, charred piece of wood sits on my nightstand. Beside it rests a clavicle. I stare at these objects for a long time, questions bubbling up through my brain. The clavicle is misshapen. The bone bulges, revealing a seam where the bones grew fast and unnatural.

I open the window. A warm summer wind moves the curtains. Everything smells of blood and rust. I toss the things into the alley below. Feral dogs immediately investigate.

When I flip on the TV, her laughter escapes a newscaster’s mouth.

Some boundary has been breached. I am never able to identify what line I crossed, what date or milestone was reached. But after that, I often hear static, like the sound of snow on a television set. Behind it, her disembodied voice reads sequences of numbers and the occasional random phrase. Once, she quotes Shakespeare: Hell is empty and all the devils are here. Another time, she offers the words of Aleister Crowley: Science is always discovering odd scraps of magical wisdom and making a tremendous fuss about its cleverness.

The spies who could have made sense of these things are dead. One of them is missing a clavicle.

My world changes, subtly. I feel her watching me. Strange occurrences plague me. The barn refuses to stay contained in nightmares. I see it in movies, a still blipping past in the midst of a scene. It appears in books and on posters and album covers. A pasta box, one time. I glimpse its forlorn, abandoned husk in paintings and in photos on my phone. Once, I spot it out of the corner of my eye in a field I pass daily on my way to work.

I hear her voice on the radio, coming through waves of static. On the phone, in the midst of a call to a gallery, an insurance agent, a pizza delivery place. Sometimes her transmissions are nonsensical, just seemingly random repetitions of numbers. Occasionally, there is music behind her, warped carnival sounds, organ music, a polka. Once, a child’s jingle, a cheerful ditty about the black plague: Ring around the rosy.

I find a stunning replica of the barn on my sketchpad, drawn in charcoal.

I never use charcoal.

My work grows erratic. Colors run and bleed together, hues of death and rot. I wonder if I am mad, but I have learned to fear the hospitals, the men in white coats with designer shoes and laser-corrected vision and perfectly dyed hair. They, too, walk the line between magic and science, creation and destruction.

She leaves me bloody teeth and dead birds. She writes messages to my broken soul, words and formulas scratched into the pollen on my windshield or the steam on my bathroom mirror. Bloody fingerprints on a book I’m reading. A pile of teeth on my nightstand. A mound of abnormal fingerbones, laid out in a strange, runic shape in my bathtub, part of some alien alphabet, perhaps. Lovers flee from her macabre gifts. The first few refuse my calls, my broken apologies. After that, I no longer bother trying.

I wake one day to find her name etched in blood on my stomach. I write back, in ash and lipstick, in paint and colored pencil. I leave my replies on finished canvasses, commissioned ones even.

What do you want?

She never answers.

The next day, I see colors I never perceived before. The transmission, which I now hear coming from lamps, from unplugged radios, from my cell phone, changes again. I am the queen of every hive. She has begun to favor Amergin. I wonder if he, too, looked up at the night sky and saw an endless abyss. I wonder if the ancient druids broke the code of molecules and DNA and portals. I understand, by then, that this is what they wanted, the scientists, before their minds and souls burst under the pressure of infinite secrets and cosmic mysteries.

She is strongest under the new moon, when the skies are black, lightless caverns.

In the next dream, a trapdoor opens on the barn’s dirt floor. Grated iron stairs lead down into utter blackness, where rusting metal doors line a corridor that was once stark and clean and sterile. The paint is peeling and rotted.

The dream pulls me into the past, to the day Anna arrived here. I see her standing at the door, on the border between the golden field and the nightmare ahead, a hard-shell suitcase in her hand. She wears thick nurse’s shoes, and clutches a string of useless prayer beads. She kisses the beads for luck, and then descends the stairs below the trapdoor, leaving the sunlight behind.

I win awards for my painted depiction of the scene.

I draw the decay, the succession of events, to soundtracks of static and numbers. Her eyes turn white, her skin ash-grey. She wears a crown of fingerbones and a dress of teeth. Antennae sprout from her forehead, picking up signals from the cosmos. In her hand, a scepter made of someone’s femur.

She whispers oblivion into my sleep. I wake seeing data in the shadows, static in the clouds. White noise hums through my fractured thoughts. Screams burst apart in my mouth, scaring the crows from my window.

She speaks to me in the next dream: not in codes or static this time, but words.

They chose him, she says, because he had no family. He’d seen too much in the war. Too much blood. Too much death. Too much pain. They left him on the street, another destitute soul. No one would believe him, if he ever tried to say what happened here. No one would care. He wasn’t the only one. I found shallow graves in the woods. And then there were the others … the darklings. They, too, died here. Once, the wolves found one of their bodies. The remains were not human. Not entirely, anyway. After that, they burned the corpses.

She stares at me with filmy, clouded eyes.

It was his eyes that drew me to him. Green as the grass in that meadow. Deep as the sea. When I saw what they were doing to him, I tried to stop it. I knew it was wrong. But there was only one way out. I chose my fate the moment I set him free. But it was too late. He was already changing. They chased him through cold forests with guns and dogs. By morning, only ash and bone remained of him. I realized what I had done when I signed those forms. I sold my soul, my flesh, my future. I had no protection against their rage. They knew why I had released him. The test left little doubt. But they chose us all for the same reasons. We were all alone. I became the experiment.

For a moment, I see her as she was. Her eyes are like mine.

I paint his death. A full moon sits bloated in the sky above an autumn forest. This is not the autumn that blazes with color in October, but the fall of November, cold and drab and colorless. Men in uniform bark orders above the baying of dogs and the sharp report of gunfire. Bullets and flashlight beams cut through dark trees.

The thing they shot and burned in those woods was no longer human.

I wake with tears streaming down my face and truth—hideous, blasphemous truth—crawling through the blackest depths of my soul. I spend years trying desperately to find my birth mother. The records are sealed and classified. All I learn is that my birth certificate was signed in the north, in a remote county at the edge of the boreal forest.

I don’t see her for a long time, after that. I convince myself that the dreams were only dreams, that the clavicle and other incidents were hallucinations. Madness is a comfort and a lie.

And then one day, after long seasons of peace, I find a heap of teeth on my windowsill. Static rises from the pile of molars and canines, whispering to me across oblivion.

Six five three two four.

I am the tomb of all hope, the queen of all hives

Six five three two four.

I wake to find her standing beside my bed, her colorless eyes staring at me in the shadows. The voice of a long-dead druid speaks through her lips.

Who is the troop, the god who fashions edges in a fortress of gangrene?

My thoughts become salt, formless, granular, and white. I remember nothing more of that night.

I have a gallery showing the next day. As I pack my car, I realize that two of the ocean scenes I chose for the show now depict the barn. I put them in the trunk anyway and drive off, my thoughts sluggish and heavy. Suddenly I realize I don’t recognize my surroundings. This makes no sense. The gallery is only a few miles away. I haven’t left the city or the interstate. But somehow the road has changed from a separated six-lane city highway to a two-lane country road.

I slow down, uneasy.

After a few more miles, I am in the boondocks. There are no buildings here, no roads or driveways, just empty forest and the occasional bog. The area looks vaguely familiar. Dread turns to nausea in the pit of my stomach.

The barn sits around the next curve.

Terror rises up through me, clutching my windpipe with an icy grip. I slam on the brakes, bringing the car to a screeching stop. Then I turn, tires squealing, and race back the way I came. I floor it going past the barn, and watch it shrink in my rear-view mirror. But escape isn’t that easy. Instead of finding my way back to the highway, there is again the curve leading to a familiar field. Somehow I am approaching the barn again.

I try to escape two more times before I give up and stop the car. When the engine dies, silence folds over me like a blanket. Or a funeral shroud. The air is thick and heavy. The distant buzz of tree frogs and birds fades away. Silence hangs thick above the fields of hay and goldenrod. The radio tower in the woods looks primordial, a spine reaching into the abyss above.

Something small and chitinous crawls over my arm, emitting waves of static. Across the meadow, dark shapes gather at the treeline, clinging to the shadows. They are mad things, unholy. They should not exist but in nightmares.

I open my trunk, looking for a weapon; a knife, a screwdriver, anything useful. They watch me silently as I take out a flashlight. Their likenesses stare at me from my paintings. When I walk toward the barn, they howl, singing runes into the wind. The sound is beautiful and unearthly. It rises over the trees, drifting up into the cosmos. A murder of crows flies overhead, darkening the skies as they flee. They know better than to stay here.

I walk toward the barn. The wind smells of ozone and death.

I pause at the entrance, on the border between shadow and sunlight. Inside, the scent of rich dirt fills my lungs. I take a shaky step forward, and then another. Something bites my ankle, scuttling over my flip-flop. The trapdoor waits. Beneath, metal stairs lead into a pit of darkness. I look back at the door. They are there, blocking it.

She is waiting for me in the darkness below.

She has changed.

Her arms have become tentacles. Her skin—what I can see of it—is paper-thin and mottled with green spots. Hook-like talons tip her elongated fingers, and a single, thick horn envelops the back of her skull, like an Elizabethan collar.

She brings me deeper and deeper into the shadows beneath the barn, leading me down a forgotten hallway to a chamber piled high with bones. Some are still wet, glistening with blood and sinew. Ancient radio equipment sits in the corner, covered with layers of dust. I reach out and turn the radio on. It shouldn’t work without a power source. But it does. Her voice crackles through the speakers, wrapped in static. Her words are bloody and gelatinous. I need calcium now, she says, and collagen and marrow.

I look around. An antiquated reel-to-reel sits in one room. Others contain more scientific things, beakers and vials and broken glass jars. Then there are the cells. Their walls are splattered with foul dark stains. Death and madness hang in the air. The place reeks of coldness and precision.

They wanted to experiment, she says, in a burst of pink noise, with the very fabric of reality. They wanted to send a soul—a spy—through a radio transmission. Instead, they tore a rip in our world, and opened a door to places beyond time, where the last trace of light falls into the endless abyss. They were behind what happened with the USS Eldridge, you know. They silenced that. But I, I was special. I was chosen. I saw the face of eternity when I looked into the portal.

Things slither away from the light as I approach her. My feet crunch on beetles and worms, popping the decaying organs of man and beast. Filth squishes between my toes.

You were born here, she tells me.

In that moment, my soul splits open and escapes its shell, like a seed bursting apart for the plant within to grow.

Her voice fills the shadows.

They tried to carve the knowledge out of us with sharp steel things. They drew nightmares on our eyes, and trapped our screams in shiny jars. They dissected our fear, our pain, our hunger, and created alchemical formulas for our terrors. I don’t know everything that they were trying to do, those men in white coats, only that they dealt with portals and vortexes. Things they wanted no one to see.

A third eye erupts from her face, pus-filled and glistening with foul liquid. She raises her tentacles, and I see the egg sacs glistening beneath her arms. Her nose has become a beak, hooked and sharp. Her carapace is black and shiny, like onyx.

I look up into the sky—which I can see through the ground and roof above me—and see the face of eternity. It is monstrous. It is magnificent.

Her voice caresses my mind, a spider’s touch.

This is the beginning of your death. And of your rule.

The sound of static roars into my brain, scrambling my thoughts. Visions burst in my mind, blooms of fire and death. I should run. I should fight. Instead, I stand there, weak and broken, melting. She opens her scaly arms, and I fall into them, sobbing.

The word Mother tastes like blood on my tongue.

Something cold pierces my flesh.

I fall to my knees, suddenly hot and dizzy. I vomit a dark green bile that smokes and steams. White noise rushes through my veins, pounding in my ears.

She retreats to the shadows of a tunnel she has burrowed into the ground.

By the next morning, my arms and legs are covered with angry red blisters. They turn yellow in the center, while the edges darken to black and green. My tongue splits. A protrusion erupts from my forehead. The carbuncles keep growing, swelling with fluid and nightmares. My hair falls out. Cataracts cloud my eyes. Lesions block my ear canals. A thick horn grows around the back of my skull. Like hers, it cradles my head like an Elizabethan collar or Triceratops horn. I see with my new eye, which rests on a stalk above my head. I hear with the antennae that burst out of my skull.

The skin falls from my face. She picks it up and eats it, licking her claws.

She is pleased. She gives me bones to eat. I bite into dry, dusty femurs that splinter into shards in my mouth, suck marrow out of finger bones. It tastes oily and decadent. I swallow knowledge in fatty, gelatinous lumps. I can identify individual molecules now. I see both on a cellular level and on a galactic. They are the same, in varying proportions.

I find the records she saved for me in a rusted file cabinet. From them, I glean her story. Most of the papers are yellow with age. They crumble to dust at my touch. Some she encased in plastic, and only these survived the blood days and the seasons after them. I burn them after I read them. The words are seared into my brain. They remain there today, tucked in somewhere in that vortex of grey matter, membrane, and mystery.

Together we reopen the portal.

I give birth beneath the new moon. Screams split my lungs. My eyes rupture and run down my face in streams of warm, salty gel. My boils burst, and beautiful monsters crawl out of the pustules. Static crackles through the air as the transmission starts. She calls to celestial abominations, celebrating the birth of the darklings, broadcasting coded destruction into the night sky.

Grow, I whisper to my children. Grow and breed. The world will be yours one day.

They scuttle into the darkness, watching me with blood black eyes.

She leaves me skeletons to feed them with. Every day, a fresh pile appears at the door of the cell I have chosen. We save the bones of the men in white coats for special occasions. I discover some of the old recordings: random sequences of numbers read by what sounds like a young woman, the audio distorted by strange, staticky buzzes. I recognize her voice immediately.

Seasons of blood and madness.

I hide in the forest, watching occasional cars pass, the smell of exhaust sharp and pungent in my snout. My children grow. I bring them to the sea, to the desert, tenderly carrying them in wet skulls, in pockets of flesh, in my blisters, in my wounds. The others come and help, my brethren, the silent monstrosities waiting in the wood. They are quiet and meticulous, their pupil-less eyes pools of oblivion. I sense their thoughts, which they cast at me in clouds of white noise. They dream only of death, of ripe flesh tearing and bursting beneath their fangs. I speak to them in waves of static, alchemical patterns, the song of molecules and elements. My words travel through their cells. My thoughts explode in their flesh. My dreams burn in their blood and fester in their marrow. They feast on bones, and watch the night skies with eyes grown on stalks from their misshapen heads. They bring me gifts of bone and offal as blood fills their footsteps and their shadows. They are beautiful. They are horrendous. They are oblivion.

One day, they will blot out the sun and the blue sky will go dark forever.

One day, they will crack the moon and the dead clouds will shed the last of their color.

One day, we will shatter the banshee winds into pieces and chew the bones of the last human being.

I hover over the ancient radio, speaking to my scattered kin. Humanity has failed, I tell them. It is time for our kind. Night after night, I send the messages out, whispering visions of death and decay. She always wanted me to take over this sacred duty. I realize that when I eat her bones. The secrets are in her marrow, which is sweet and rich.

By spring, the machines have fallen silent, and the wind no longer carries the sound of human voices. My final transmission crosses an empty night sky, riding waves of static through the endless abyss.

I am the tomb of all hope, the queen of all hives.

The post PseudoPod 698: Of Marrow and Abomination appeared first on PseudoPod.

Apr 12 2020

43mins

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PseudoPod 697: Five Fridays During Lent

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PseudoPod 697: Five Fridays During Lent is a PseudoPod original.


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“The Greek countryside crawls with legends of undead. They are a blend of what we today call vampires, ghouls and zombies, and they almost always meddle with the living. I have a book with such folktales by my desk for reference. So when during a writing challenge I was required to reach for the three nearest books to find inspiration for a story, my hand went for that particular book on its own. (The other two were a recipe book for traditional Greek dishes and a psychology manual on the five stages of grief. I guess they mixed well).”

Five Fridays During Lent

by Christine Lucas

You beg your son to try just one spoonful. He doesn’t. He sits rigid, his palms on his thighs, his almost-glassy, bloodshot eyes fixed ahead. There’s nothing there, only the old armoire filled with mothball-smelling clothes from three generations back. You try passing the spoonful beneath his nose. He loved your magiritsa, your son.

Perhaps a story will do the trick, just like when he was a child? The war robbed you of husband, brothers, savings, dignity, even fairytales. So instead you tell him about your day: how the butcher gave you the stink-eye when you asked for lamb’s offal. Lent has just started, and you’re making Easter Sunday soup already? When you mention it’s for your son, the war hero, he nods and brings what you asked. His own son returned from the war damaged as well—more than yours, and this simple knowledge fills your heart with guilt and relief in equal parts.

Your boy didn’t return wearing his shroud. When he slurps a spoonful of barely-cooked lamb’s innards, you tell yourself that all will be fine.

Damn this town! Damn the gossiping shrews who spy on your affairs! Damn their whispers that follow you everywhere: at the baker’s, the grocer’s, at the post office. Only at the butcher’s they keep their mouths shut, for respect—or fear?–of his haunted gaze and the son he keeps locked at the back.

Katachanas, they say and spit on the ground. Vourkolakas, and cross themselves.

Ah, all those God-fearing, proper people observing Lent, abstaining from meat but not from gossip… What do they know? Do they know of courage? Of sacrifice? Of all the sleepless nights, watching him sit rigid still, praying that he won’t move and recounting your yaya’s tales of the undead who leave their graves to mingle with the living?

Your son returned a hero, but only the sound of your knitting seems to bring him some peace now. Then his shoulders relax a little, and sometimes he even blinks. His eyes are more opaque now than bloodshot, and his lips split and bleed. What good are his medals now? You hurl them across the room, the useless trinkets. They land beneath the armoire, amidst the dust and cobwebs. He doesn’t even notice.

You bring the priest—again. Papa-Nikolas won’t set one foot indoors. He mumbles a blessing from the doorstep, whisking away the sprigs dipped in holy water to every possible direction, and then some. He wants to leave there; his ever-darting eyes, his fidgeting hands, his bitten lower lip tell a different story than the holy words he forces out of his mouth.

You slip him some extra money. You try to barter. Perhaps a donation? But what can you offer that he values?

You’re broke. Everyone’s broke, except for those who collaborated with the Nazis. All that’s left is that leaking roof over your head, an armoire of your yaya’s yellowed linen and useless trinkets, and a broken son.

Papa-Nikolas bolts, mumbling that, “It’s all in God’s hands now.”

And you remain still, your heart as empty as your son’s stare.

There is no God.

You hear the news two steps out of the house: last night, the butcher cleaved off his son’s head, then blew out his own brains with the Luger he’d kept from the war.

Too many slaughtered chickens and gutted goats lately, they say, and even a mule one town over. Wolves, they’d mused at first, and shrugged it off. But no wolf climbs up windows to steal babes from their cribs. What if the child was returned to his crib the following evening, scared but unharmed? The next child wouldn’t be so lucky.

They all knew who’s responsible: the dead left unburied on unhallowed ground, who now walk among the living.

You keep your head down, and pray that they won’t notice your scraped knees and bruised wrist. You’re past your window-climbing days, but what else could you do? The cold sweat that drenched your undergarments, when you saw the babe in your son’s hands washed away your last remnants of hope. You had to fix that, the only way you could, like a burglar in the night.

No mother should be parted from her child.

You know how this ends. Iron spikes through heart, wrists, and feet. Severed head. Fire. Salt on the grave, while a priest recites words of expulsion. Satan, begone!

Not your son. Your son won’t be remembered as a babe-stealing, soulless monster, but as the hero the war made him, before it made him a corpse. And he’ll be buried in hallowed ground, by his father and grandfather. You’ll see to that; there are other ways to release the restless dead. Older ways, whispered from mother to daughter, remembered in lullabies and laments, recited in the clickety-clack of old wives’ knitting. But it has to be done tonight, on Good Friday, when Jesus travels to the Underworld and your son can follow His footsteps. So you don your Easter Sunday clothes, and pin your son’s medals on his chest. If you pinched him, he doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t bleed. But when you retrieve your knitting needles from the top drawer of the armoire, his eyes flicker.

He doesn’t resist when you pull him down and lay his head on your lap. Soft strokes on matted hair, a sob-choked lullaby, a steady pierce through the ear, the shudder of a body long-overdue for rest, and you kiss your son goodnight.

The post PseudoPod 697: Five Fridays During Lent appeared first on PseudoPod.

Apr 10 2020

13mins

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PseudoPod 696: The Fog

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“The Fog” first appeared in The Strand Magazine in October 1908 and was collected in MIDSUMMER MADNESS in 1909.

The Fog

by Morley Roberts

The fog had been thickening for many weeks, but now, moving like a black wall, it fell on the town. The lights that guided the world were put out—the nearest were almost as invisible as the stars; a powerful arc-lamp overhead was but a blur. Traffic ceased, for drivers could not see; screams were heard in the streets, and cries for help, where none could help themselves.

“I’m blind,” said Tom Crabb, as he leant against the pillar outside the Café Français in Regent Street. He said it with a chuckle, for he, alone of a street full of the lost, did not feel lost. “I’m blind, but know my way home!”

Day by day and night by night he patrolled the street with a placard upon his breast marked in big letters, “Blind’. People with eyes saw him. Out of a thousand one gave him a penny; out of ten thousand one gave him sixpence. The millionth, or some charitable madman, made it half a crown. The red-letter day of his blind life was when he found a sovereign in his palm, put there by a soft little hand that touched his. He heard a gentle girl’s voice say, “Poor blind man.” He had a hard life, and was a hard and lonely man, but he remembered that voice, as he did all voices.

As he stayed by the pillar a man stumbled against him and apologized.

“That’s Mr. Bentley,” said Tom Crabb.

“Who are you?”

“I’m blind Crabb, sir, bless your heart. You’ve given me many a copper, haven’t you?”

Bentley was a chauffeur and engineer. He drove for Lord Gervase North, the balloonist and motor-racer, and was for ever about the West End and Regent Street, as Lord Gervase often dined at the Français.

“To be sure. I know your voice,” said Bentley. “It’s an awful night, Crabb.”

“Must be,” said Crabb. “But fog or none is the same for an eyeless man. To hear the folks, it might be the end of the world, sir.”

“There never was such a fog,” replied Bentley; “it’s just awful. I can’t see you; no, nor my hand before my face.”

“You can’t get home, then. What are you doing?”

“I’ve come for my boss and the lady he’s to marry. They’re dining here with her mother. But we’ll never get home.”

“Bentley!” called a voice.

“Yes, my lord,” said the chauffeur.

“What are we to do?”

“Don’t know, my lord.”

“Can we get to an hotel?”

“They’re crammed already, I hear, my lord.”

Crabb put out his hand and touched Bentley.

“Where does he want to go? Perhaps I could lead you.”

It was a strange notion, but then the blind know their way.

“Aye, perhaps you could. The ladies live in Eccleston Square and my lord in Pont Street.”

“I don’t know either of them, but I could take them and you to your place.”

“My place?” said Bentley. Then his master spoke.

“Who’s that with you, Bentley?”

“A blind man, my lord. He thought he might take you all home, but he doesn’t know Eccleston Square. All he knows is my place.”

“Better be there than in the street,” said Crabb. He had a sense of power in him. All the rest of the world were blind. He alone had some sight.

“If the hotels are full we must go somewhere,” said Lord Gervase. “There’s no room here, nor a bed. They want to shut up now. I’ll speak to the ladies.”

“Good bloke that,” said Crabb. “He gave me a shilling once and said a kind word.”

The darkness was thicker than ever. It was incredibly thick and choking—it made the useless eyes ache. It was a threat, a terror. So might the end of the world come.

“Bentley!” said Lord Gervase once more.

“Yes, my lord.”

“Come here.”

Bentley found him, and his employer put his hand upon his shoulder. “Can you trust this man? If so, the ladies will come to your place till it clears, if you will take us in.”

“My wife will do her best, my lord. I know this Crabb to speak to. He says you once gave him a shilling. I’m sure he’ll lead us right. But what about the car?”

“You must leave it, or get him to bring you back. I want you with us. Come, Lady Semple; come, Julia.”

The mother and daughter, who had been close behind him, moved timidly.

“Let me lead her ladyship,” said Bentley.

“Thank you, Bentley,” said Lady Semple. There was a painful note in her voice. She was never strong, and the fog alarmed her. Julia clung to her lover and did not speak.

“Crabb, take us to my place, then, if you can,” said Bentley.

“I’ll give you a fiver if we get there all right,” said Lord Gervase.

“You gave me a shilling once, my lord, and after that I’d take you for nothing,” said Crabb. “’Tisn’t often I get so much.”

He led the way and Bentley took hold of his coat.

“Keep close, all of you,” said Crabb. “The Circus is packed terrible, but if I can get across Piccadilly, “twill be easy.”

They were on the west side of Regent Street and went down Air Street into Piccadilly. Out of the darkness wandering folks came and met them. Some wailed, some asked for help, some seemed dazed or half mad, as all folks get in deep fog. And every now and again there was a crash of glass.

They came to Piccadilly and heard the trampling of horses. People in carriages spoke. The darkness was a visible, awful darkness, and in it a mad world was buried.

“Here’s the way across to Eagle Place,” said Crabb. “But can we get across?”

It was a passage of such peril as might be found in war, or upon an unknown mountain in heavy snow, or in a wreck upon a reef of sharp rocks. They heard the dreadful cry of a hurt man. Crabb’s foot came upon one who lay on the pavement. He was dead, or so Crabb averred when he stooped and felt him.

“I’ve seen many dead when I was soldiering in India,” said Crabb. Julia trembled to hear him say so.

There were many people in the street; some were drunk, and many wild, but most were fearful. Yet the darkness released some from fear and let loose their devilry. It seemed that two men in front of them smashed every window as they passed, and laughed wildly. Once Julia called out, and her lover said, “What is it?”

“Did you kiss me, Gervase?”

There was horror in her voice. He had not kissed her.

“My God!” said Gervase. “My God!”

There was a strange laugh in the darkness. He leapt at the laugh, caught it by the throat, and dashed the laugher on the pavement. And Julia’s cry brought him back to her. But they crossed at Duke Street, and wondered how they did it.

“Now it’s easy,” said Crabb. “We’re as good as there, my lord.”

In St James’s Square there were few people, and they rested. Julia spoke again.

“Did you—did you hurt him?”

But Crabb heard her speak.

“Who spoke?” he said, suddenly.

“’Twas Miss Semple spoke,” answered Bentley.

“Young lady, did you ever give a poor blind man a sovereign?” asked Crabb, in a strange, far-off voice.

“Yes, once, many years ago,” said Julia, wondering.

“And you said, “Poor blind man.” God bless you, miss. I knew your voice just now,” said Crabb. “’Twas the fifth of July, five years ago; I never forget a voice.”

He went on in silence and led them by way of Pall Mall and the Square down Whitehall and Parliament Street, going through many perils, till the Houses of Parliament were on their left and the Abbey on their right.

“We’re close now,” said Crabb. “’Tis strange it should be the same to me as any other night. Is it better now?”

“It’s worse,” said Bentley, gloomily.

But they came to the stairway of the flat that Bentley lived in.

“Is this it?” asked Bentley, in surprise. He could see nothing.

“You live here, or I’m a fool,” said Crabb. “I’ve led you straight. Go up and see.”

On the first floor his flat was, and Bentley’s young wife opened the door and cried out as she took hold of him.

“A blind man led me, dear,” said Bentley, “and we’ve brought Lord Gervase North and Lady Semple and Miss Semple. They cannot get home. We must keep them till tomorrow, when the fog goes.”

So shadow spoke to shadow, and she whom they could not see spoke to them and bade them welcome in a trembling voice, and found chairs for them. But Bentley and Lord Gervase went out again to Crabb, who took his five pounds gratefully.

“Will this fog last?” asked Lord Gervase. But none could answer him. Ere Crabb went off to his solitary house close by, Bentley said to him:

“If the fog’s like this tomorrow, come in and see us, Crabb.”

They shook hands, for the danger brought them close, and Crabb went off murmuring to himself. Bentley went back upstairs again, and it seemed to him that the fog was thicker still. In the room was lighted darkness, and the lamps showed the night feebly.

“There never was such a fog,” he said, cheerfully. But Lady Semple moaned and shed tears, and nothing they could say consoled her. To be in her own home in such a fog would be bad enough, but to be here! Poor Mrs. Bentley, only lately married, was terrified to think she had three such folks to deal with, but she had sense and some energy in her. She took her husband aside.

“The Thompsons are away,” she began. These people lived in the opposite flat on their landing. “Why shouldn’t we break in there and take their beds for these ladies?”

“Break in!” cried Bentley. “Suppose they came back?”

“They’ve gone for a week, and how can they come back in this fog? Besides, what can we do?”

“It’s a notion after all,” said her husband. “I’ll propose it to his lordship.”

As a result of the proposal he and Lord Gervase put their heads and shoulders together and turned housebreakers inside five minutes. They lighted fires and lamps and mitigated the horrid darkness as much as they could, and sent Lady Semple and Julia to bed. Mrs. Bentley soon followed, and left her husband and his employer together.

“This is a queer situation, Bentley. I wonder if it will last?” said Lord Gervase.

“It’s a rum start, my lord,” replied Bentley; “and, to look at it, it might last for ever.”

“Then what will become of London and of us?”

“We’ll have to leave in your balloon, my lord,” said Bentley, with a grim laugh. “But let’s hope it will be better in the morning.”

Lord Gervase slept in the Bentleys’ spare room, and slept soundly. When he woke it was pitch-dark. He looked at his watch by the light of a match and could not discern the figures. It seemed as if he was blind. But on opening the watch and feeling the hands he found it was eight o’clock in the morning. The fog was worse than ever. The gloom that was outside settled on their hearts. They had breakfast together and hardly spoke. Lady Semple cried continually, and Julia could hardly restrain her own tears.

“It’s like the end of the world,” sobbed Lady Semple. “We—we shall die of it.”

In truth Mrs. Bentley wondered where food was to come from if it continued. She had nothing left after breakfast but a loaf of bread. And they could not see each other. When they opened the window the outside fog was as thick as a black blanket. It inspired a helpless, hopeless horror. They sat about till nearly noon and said nothing. At ten Crabb came to the outer door and knocked. When they let his dark shadow in he put something on the table.

“It’s grub,” he said. “I thought you might want it.”

He came to them from the outer world; they asked him for news. “Things are awful, my lord,” he said, quietly. But there was a strange ring in his voice. “They’re awful; I can’t tell you all that’s going on. ’Tis madness. There are awful things being done; fires, murders, and horrible screams about. I was in Trafalgar Square and folks cried out suddenly, “Light! Light!” Something broke in the fog overhead and a great light shone. People cried out, and then—then the fog came down again. Terror is in us all, but many have broken into liquor shops and are drunk; the whole town’s mad.”

“Oh, will it last?” asked Julia. “What do the papers say?”

There were no papers; there was nothing, said Crabb. The very electric lights were out; it seemed no one worked, no one could work. There was a blind mob in the streets, and all were lost. They sought to escape, and knew not which way to run. When he had finished Lady Semple fainted, falling into her daughter’s arms. Julia and Mrs. Bentley took hold of her, and Crabb and Bentley and Lord Gervase went apart.

“What’s to be done?” asked Lord Gervase, in a kind of despair.

“Nothing but wait, my lord,” said Bentley.

“Could you lead us out of London, Crabb?” asked Lord Gervase.

“I don’t know more than my beat and a bit over,” said Crabb. “What I know I know like the inside of my hat, but beyond it there’s a sort of blackness for me. But I’ll get you food.”

“How did you get what you brought?” asked Bentley.

“Out of an open shop,” said Crabb. “There was a dead man in it.”

They said nothing for a time.

“Folks are going mad and jumping into the river,” said Crabb. “And I heard women shrieking awfully. Wicked people are about. There’s fires already here and there.”

“What can we do?” asked Lord Gervase.

“It can’t last,” said Bentley.

“Why can’t it?” asked Crabb, after a pause.

“It might last a week, eh?” said Bentley; “or—or more?”

“Where’s London’s food to come from? Where are folks to find it?” asked Crabb. “In three days they’ll be eating each other. I heard horrid things said in the dark by blind voices, my lord. They gave me the shivers and shakes.”

“Where’s that balloon, Bentley?” asked Lord Gervase, in a shaken voice. “Could we—could we use it? We must get Lady Semple out of this; we must, or she will die!”

It was in a store close by the gasworks, but Bentley couldn’t find it. Crabb said he knew the gasworks if Bentley could find the place in which the balloon was.

“But what will you do with it, my lord?”

“Go up in it and out of this, and drift away,” said Lord Gervase. “It could be done.”

“Will there be any gas left?” asked Bentley, and then he clapped his thigh as if he thought of something.

“What is it, Bentley?”

“There’ll be none working at the gasworks, my lord!”

“No?”

“Crabb and I will go down and turn off the supply if we can,” said Bentley; “turn it off before it’s gone.”

“Do it,” said Lord Gervase; “this is horrible—my eyes ache. It’s driving me mad. Poor Julia!”

“Will you help me, Crabb?” asked Bentley.

So they went out together, and passed murder in the streets, and saw the glare of fires, and heard awful things. And Bentley was blind. But Crabb had eyes in his mind. So at last they came to the works, and smote on the door to see if by happy chance there were any there. The watchman came running; he had lost his nerve, and cried as he held to them, telling how the men had left him all alone. But he lived there, and they had their homes elsewhere.

“What gas have you left?” they asked him, and when he could answer he said that one gasometer was half full, but that it went quickly.

“Come and turn it off, so that it won’t waste any more,” cried Bentley. And they turned it off, knowing they brought bitter darkness to many. But Crabb said he would bring food to the watchman, and he was easier in his mind.

“London’s being destroyed,” said the watchman. “I hear dreadful things.”

“Dreadful things are being done,” said Crabb. “But dreadful things are always being done, my lad. I’m not so blind I can’t see that.”

“This is blindness,” said the watchman. “I can’t smoke even. ’Tis dreadful. Shall we all die?”

“Some day,” said Crabb. “I can see that.”

And he and Bentley tried to find the store where the balloon was, and, in trying, Crabb once got lost and said so. Bentley’s blood ran cold, for Crabb was his sight, his life, and the life of those he loved. For he loved not only his wife, but Gervase North and Julia Semple, since they were made to be loved, both of them, and Bentley was kind-hearted.

Yet Crabb found himself again, and they went back to the Square without discovering the balloon shed.

“We’ll try tomorrow,” said Crabb.

They tried next day and failed.

They tried the next day—and still failed. But Crabb brought them food, very fine food, wonderful things in pots and jars.

“I went up to Piccadilly and smashed a window for ’em,” said Crabb. “God’s truth I did. I hope they’re good. Is it too dark to see?”

They, too, had no gas.

“We can taste,” they answered. But they tasted fog—fog thick, inspissated, yellow, a pasty fog. And they tasted horror, for there were lamentable voices in the streets, voicing death and murder.

“What’s this in the bottom of the sack?” asked Bentley, when he had taken out the jars and the fine glasses of preserved foods.

“Jewels, I think,” said Crabb, in a strange voice. “I thought the ladies might like ’em. I found ’em on the pavement in an open bag, and by the feel of ’em thought they might be di’monds. And I passed another shop and smashed the window and grabbed a handful. Why not? Who wants ’em? London’s dying. But you’ve your balloon.”

Again a heavy silence fell on them. Crabb went away—he wanted news, he said. So he went lightly through the gloom, the paste of darkness and night. London was like the Pit: it was silent, but in the silence were cries. Horses lay dead; others wandered loose. There were fires in the streets, made of smashed vehicles; gloomy shadows burnt themselves and cooked horseflesh by the leaping hidden flames; some danced drunkenly and fell in the fires. Many offered golden loot for food, jewels for a mouthful, and went about hunting. They said—voices said—that the river was thick with floating corpses already, and fires increased. Out of the night came the mad shrieks of women and the wildest laughter. Dying men played with death and fell on fire and crime and the awfullest disasters. Some went madly crying for their wives and daughters, their little children and their old people who were lost. In churches they prayed; a blind organist made mad music to Heaven in a church that Crabb passed. For him a madman blew.

“’Tis an awful strange world,” said Crabb. “Darkness fell on me years ago. But this city’s blind.”

Some he spoke to were quiet and some wild. They told him rumors—the strangest. It was wonderful how rumors went in the dark. Wild crowds were marching east and west and south and north, or trying to march. But few had any guidance. ’Twas said one man had a compass and led a thousand to the river and there fell in. The parks were full of wanderers. Rich people offered thousands from windows, and were slain for money that the slayers could not find. One man lighted a fire with banknotes. A voice said that men were in the Bank, in all the banks, stealing the sacks of gold. The pavements were slippery with a thick fluid, and the dead lay everywhere. Folks drank at the river and fell in. They threw themselves from windows and fell on blind wanderers.

The railways were quiet; nothing moved there. Ships were deserted in the lower river. The telegraphs were quiet; men fled from them. The telephone exchanges were empty. The outside world had deserted London and cut it off. It was sunk in a pit; it lay at the bottom of a well. And these things Crabb gathered up and, going back to his friends, told them. But he brought them food and they ate in the darkness. He took them wine and they drank in the night. And they lost count of the days and the nights. But every day (or night) Bentley and Crabb sought for the place where the balloon was stored.

On the tenth day they found it. That day Lady Semple seemed near to death.

With infinite labor, though they had the help of the watchman, they took the balloon to the gasworks, and then Lord Gervase came with them, leaving Julia with her sick mother.

“It’s our only chance, my darling,” he said, as he left her.

He kissed her in the darkness, and kissed the dying woman—for, indeed, unless they got her out of darkness she was dead—and went away with Crabb and Bentley.

With blind eyes they worked; their eyes ached and saw nothing; their hearts labored, for the air was thick and foul, and ever fouler and thicker, since the fires of the town grew by the folly and madness of lost men. And once again for an hour it grew lighter overhead. They saw each other. Then the darkness fell again. With the help of the watchman, now their slave and the slave of Crabb—who did the work of many and was the calmest of all—they started the inflating of the great balloon. In the blackness of things they had to use infinite care lest they should wound the gigantic ship which was to save them. Yet at last the monster commenced to grow wonderfully, like a huge toadstool in the night. As it grew it straightened out the gear, and they felt its proportions and recognized this and that and felt easier.

“We shall get out,” said Lord Gervase. He yearned to live. He was young and loved a woman, and the world was big for him and fine. But he found Bentley a bigger man than himself; and Crabb was bigger than either, though he had been no more than a soldier, wounded in a foolish fight in far-off India. He gave them courage to drink—he held up their hearts. For he loved the voice of Julia Semple, and remembered her gift, and was glad to help her and her lover.

“You shall want nothing after this, Crabb,” said Gervase.

“I shall want much, or little always,” returned Crabb, in a strange exaltation. For he had never loved a woman till now, though he had kissed many. And her whom he loved he could never kiss.

The world outside was not their world. They were lost in London in the darkness, and were cut off. But the balloon grew and grew. And then it ceased to grow. There was no more gas.

That night it was a little lighter (for it was night, though they knew it not), and the four men labored in the works, and set the retorts going and made more gas. Crabb was a man of strength, and now he grew more strong. He held them up and labored, and made the watchman, who was a poor creature, do all that he should do. He made him feel brave. This is the gift of the strong; the gift by which men know them. And at last the balloon stood up and tugged upon its ropes, made fast to an old boiler in the open space.

“It will carry—how many?” asked Crabb. This was a thing none had asked. It was a great balloon, built for a special race and for purposes of science, but it could not carry them all, and they knew it.

Lord Gervase whispered to him.

“Five at the most, Crabb.”

Including the watchman they were seven.

“I’ll stay, my lord,” said Crabb. “I can get on by myself, as you see.”

“You’re a brave man,” said Lord Gervase.

He was more than a brave man, this poor blind fellow. But for him what would they have done? By now they would have been dead. Through him they had one chance.

But if Crabb stayed, who was the other to be? They fought it out that night in the flat among the three—Lord Gervase, Crabb, and Bentley. The women stayed apart in another room, where some feared Lady Semple was dying.

“I’ll stay with those who can’t go,” said Crabb. They understood him. He could live. For him it was not dark. He had, as he said, eyes, and his strong and quiet mind could endure the horrors of which he told them. They knew he never told half, but their minds told them the rest.

“Let it be so, Crabb. You’ve saved us,” said Lord Gervase. “When this is over, ask what you like and you shall have it.”

“I’ll stay with Crabb, sir,” said Bentley. He too was brave, but his heart sank as he spoke.

“Your wife must go, then!”

“She must,” said Bentley.

“What about the watchman?” asked Crabb.

“If I stay he can go,” said Bentley. “He has helped; but for him we couldn’t have filled the balloon. Let him go.”

Bentley called to his wife. She came from the other flat and went to his voice, and leant upon him while he told her what they meant to do. She was a young girl still, no more than nineteen, and her soul was her husband’s in this hour.

“I’ll stay with you, Will.”

They could not move her. For when they spoke urgently she laughed at them in scorn. Every reason they urged for her safety was one for her man’s.

“I’d rather die with him. Don’t say any more. Let the watchman go,” said she. Bentley kissed her in the darkness, which was lighted for him by her faith and love, and she wept upon his heart.

“Take poor Lady Semple out of this place quickly,” she said, “or she will die.”

They knew it was the truth. Lord Gervase spoke.

“Then it’s Lady Semple and Miss Semple, myself and the watchman. Yet the balloon might carry five. It’s a pity.”

“So much the better chance for you, my lord,” said Bentley.

The higher they could rise the greater chance there was of getting an air-current to carry them away from London. But they knew there might be none.

“Lose no time,” said Crabb. He was the strongest there.

They needed a strong man, for if the fog could be worse it was now worse indeed. The heavy smoke of many fires ran along the ground; nothing but the calm that destroyed them kept them from being destroyed.

“Let’s go now,” said Crabb. He carried Lady Semple to the works in his arms, and as they went she spoke to him.

“Save my daughter, Crabb. I shall never get out alive.”

“We’ll save you both, and all of you, my lady,” said Crabb, cheerfully.

“Oh, it’s dreadful,” she moaned. “Am I blind, Crabb? I see nothing—nothing! I choke!”

“You’ll be in sunlight, God’s sunlight, in half an hour, my lady,” said Crabb. “Up above this there’s light—there must be; think of it—fine sunlight shining such as I’ve not seen these ten years, since I saw it out in India. ’Tis a sun there, my lady. I remember shining temples, gold and marble. Oh, yes, there’s sunlight up above.”

They came to the works and entered. The watchman greeted them nervously.

“You must take me, gentlemen; you must take me,” he cried, fearfully.

“Shut up,” said Crabb. “You’re going to be taken. Don’t act the cur.”

But the watchman was half mad. There were thousands mad that hour in London, and tens of thousands would be. Yes, there was sunlight up above, said Crabb. Oh, the brave man he was! Could there be sunlight, or had the sun been put out?

They laid the sick woman in the car, and she rested her head upon Julia’s knees. The watchman held to the basket-work and leapt in hurriedly. But Gervase North spoke with Crabb and Bentley.

“Stay here if you can, Crabb. You, Bentley, go back to your wife. She’ll be lonely. You’re both brave men—the bravest. I feel a cur to leave you. But you stay, Crabb. If there’s no wind up aloft we shall come down here—here! You understand?”

They understood and shook hands.

“I’d like to shake hands with Miss Julia, my lord,” said Crabb, in a queer, strained voice.

“Yes, yes,” said Lord Gervase.

So Crabb spoke to the girl.

“Will you shake hands, miss?”

Julia cried softly.

“Oh, yes; you’re a brave man.”

“You said years ago, ‘Poor blind man,’” said Crabb. He kissed her hand gently.

“Goodbye, miss.”

Gervase was in the car.

“You can let go, Crabb,” he said. “Goodbye, Bentley; goodbye, Crabb.”

“Good luck and God’s sunlight to you all,” said the blind man.

He and Bentley let the rope run slowly, easing it off round a heavy pipe of iron that lay by the big boiler.

“I’m at the end of the rope,” said Crabb. “Stand clear, Bentley. Goodbye, sir. Goodbye, miss.”

The balloon was invisible, the car unseen; the world was blank and awful.

“Let go,” said Gervase.

He heard a far dim voice below him cry “Goodbye,” and knew the earth had dropped away. He grasped Julia’s hand. Lady Semple fainted and was quiet. The watchman laughed. But Gervase looked up—up!

Above him he saw something—a dimness, a blur, a space. It was almost black, but visible; it was brown, it was yellow, and then grey. There was a dash of wonderful blue in it, and then they shot out into a magic and intolerable day of noon! The sun shone upon them, and far below lay a wonderful cloud with sunlight on it.

And the watchman giggled strangely. Julia shrank from him and held out her hand to her lover. They saw each other once more—their sight was their own again. But Gervase was grimed with the labor he had done; she hardly knew him. Even his voice was strange.

“Thank God! It’s wonderful!” she said. He bent and kissed her.

“My dearest!” he answered. And Lady Semple moaned and woke.

“Where am I?” she asked.

“In the daylight,” said Gervase.

“The poor men who were left!” cried Julia. She had never seen this Crabb with her eyes; she only knew him as a big shadow, a voice that was strong and yet trembled when he spoke to her. She knew he was a hero, and knew, as women must know, that he loved her. He was in the darkness beneath them.

But how wonderful the world was! The sun was glorious, the heaven above a perfect blue. The far cloud below was white, and yet in places a strange dun color. It heaved and moved and rose and sank. Out of it came strange pillars of yellow clouds.

“What are they?” asked Julia, pointing into the void.

“Fires,” said her lover. He wondered if the balloon moved, and could not see that it did. There was no speck of cloud above them to say if the air moved.

Far away from the city, to the east and west, they saw a shining gleam of the river. The great cloud rested only on the town. They saw far off blue hills, and the far, far country adorned with happy little towns. Wrath lay only on the city; far away was peace. The lower river was full of ships. The outer world wondered at the end of things.

They rose no further. And they did not move. Gervase grasped Julia’s hand.

“You’re brave, my dear?”

It was a question, and she knew it.

“What is it, Gervase?”

“We don’t move, Julia. Neither up nor away from here.”

“What does that mean?”

She saw how grave he looked.

“What does it mean?”

“You’re brave and will be,” he said.

So she understood. He knew the balloon was slowly sinking. Perhaps there was a little leak in it.

They came slowly, very slowly, from the heights. But still the watchman chuckled, for he watched no longer. The golden cloud heaved close beneath them.

“We’re going down, down,” said the lovers. It was as though a ship sank in a turbid sea. A little grey cloud gathered about them. The sun lost its golden clear sharpness. And the watchman saw it and watched, and ceased to laugh.

“Do we go down again, sir?” he asked.

“Aye,” said Gervase. Lady Semple heard him, but saw nothing. The light of day grew dim. It was as though night fell about them. The sun went out and darkness gathered where they sank. They breathed uneasily and sank into utter blackness.

Down below Crabb waited, quietly wondering. He had taken Bentley home and had come back to the works by himself. He sat quiet as a stone—hoping, happy and unhappy. She was, at any rate, in sunshine. He thanked what gods there were for that. The time went. Perhaps a wind blew high up in the sunlight!

As he waited he heard a little sharp cry like that of a bat, and then a sudden rushing sound, and the flat sound of something striking earth not many yards from him. It was very horrible, for what fell was soft—humanly soft—and he knew it. He groped his way to where the thing fell, and his hands were wet when he touched it, and his heart failed him. But he felt again, and knew it was a man, or had been one, and not a woman. He felt a beard. It was the watchman. He sat by the body—by the wreck of the body—and wondered. Had Lord Gervase thrown him out? That was possible. Anything was possible. Or perhaps the man had gone mad. He knew he was unbalanced. There were few wholly sane in the great city. But if the balloon had been coming down, it must have ascended again.

“I’ll wait,” said Crabb. How long he waited he did not know. No clocks chimed. He had no sense of the hours; there was no light for him or for any. But at last—at last—he heard a far dim voice. It was not in the street, for now none came there, or if they came they cried lamentably. It was far above him. The next moment he heard the faint light impact of the car; heard it rebound lightly and come down again, not twenty yards from where it had ascended.

“Is that you, my lord?” he asked.

A voice within two yards of him answered, “Yes, Crabb.”

“I’m sorry, sorry, my lord.”

“It can’t be helped,” said Gervase. “Did you hear anything fall, Crabb?”

“Aye, my lord.”

“The watchman went mad and jumped out. We rose again, but sank once more. There’s no wind up there, Crabb. And Lady Semple’s dead, Crabb.”

Crabb heard Julia Semple weeping quietly, but he found a sheet of iron and dragged it over the hollow in which the watchman’s body lay before he went to the car.

“Make the ropes fast, Crabb,” said Lord Gervase.

Then they lifted Julia and her dead mother from the car. They laid the body apart.

“God help us,” said Gervase. “Where’s Bentley?”

“With his wife,” said Crabb.

“We must keep the balloon full and try again,” said Gervase. Crabb brought Bentley, and his wife came with him. The men fired the retorts and made more gas with infinite labor. Once more the balloon, which had become limp and flaccid, stood up boldly. There were five of them left. The car could carry five, but even with four they had done nothing. Before they did anything else they buried Lady Semple, and heaped earth upon the battered watchman. They thought then that it was day.

“We must go,” said Gervase.

Crabb stood apart once more, but Julia Semple spoke.

“Let Crabb come.”

“Oh, no, miss.”

“You must come, or I will not go.”

She took the blind man by the arm.

“Yes; come, Crabb. We owe everything to you,” said Gervase.

“I’ll come, then,” said Crabb. His voice was strained. They remembered it afterwards. Some folks have gifts in their voices: they mark the power of their nature, the strength of them.

Before they went up they lightened the car of every superfluous thing and cut away the guide-rope. They took little food with them, and even cast away their boots.

“It’s our last chance, Bentley,” said Lord Gervase. “We can’t make more gas, Crabb says.”

They got into the car again.

“I’ll cut the rope, my lord,” said Crabb.

“Aye,” said Gervase.

“Are we ready?”

“Yes.”

Crabb cut the rope, and they rose. But overhead the darkness was intense.

“We came through black and dun and yellow and grey before,” said Gervase. “And then the light—the light!”

Now they breathed again and saw a faint grayness, and then stars sparkling suddenly in deep dark blue, and far away to the west a thin, thin moon. It was night, the dark hour before the dawn. Towns shone with lights far below them, sparkling on the horizon.

“It’s night still,” they said.

Even as they spoke they saw in the east a little grey flame of dawn, a faint whiteness, a growth as of a lily opened.

“There’s the day!”

“I wish I could see it,” said Crabb.

“Poor blind man,” said Julia, and she pressed his big hand.

“That’s better than gold, missy. Oh, if I could see your face!” said Crabb.

“I’ve never seen yours,” she said, softly.

But the dawn rose like a magic palm in a desert. There was gold in the flame of it, and a heart of gold, and the upper limb of the sun grew out of the east, and she saw Crabb at last. Grimed though he was by labor she saw a strangely carved face, which was very calm and strong. The lids upon his sightless eyes were full and hid them. His mouth was like that of some strange Egyptian. It had power in it, and resolution.

“I see you now, Crabb,” she said to him.

The others looked at the dawn. Mrs. Bentley wept softly.

“If I could only see you! May I touch your face, missy?”

She raised his hand to it and he felt its sweet, soft contours.

“You must be very beautiful,” he murmured. Then he said to Lord Gervase:

“Do we still rise, my lord?”

“I think so, Crabb,” Gervase answered.

“Look up, my lord. Is there a cloud above us?”

High in the zenith there was a faint wisp of vapor in a cool current.

“That cloud above moves, my lord,” said Bentley.

“We don’t move,” said Gervase, dully. “’Tis a thousand feet above us.”

“Can we cast out anything?” said Crabb, in an eager voice.

They cast out some clothes—aye, and some food and water.

“It’s not enough,” said Gervase. “But there’s a strong current high above us.”

“Oh, there’s enough,” said Crabb.

But they only stared at him.

“You’re blind, Crabb.”

“I can see things,” said Crabb. “I see if we go down we shall not rise again. I see that—and more.”

He bent his head to Julia.

“You see me, missy? Will you remember me?”

“Oh, yes, Crabb.”

He stood up and held the edge of the car.

“Sit down, man!” cried Bentley.

But he stared at the warmth of the sun, which he felt upon his pallid cheek.

“Oh, the sun’s good, though I cannot see it! And I’ve a sense of light in me! Goodbye, missy.”

He said that to Julia, and ere they knew what he did he threw himself from the car.

They saw his body fall, and Julia shrieked vainly. He fell into the cloud, but the balloon rose and entered the great wind of the upper air. And the heavy cloud below them slipped to the east.

The post PseudoPod 696: The Fog appeared first on PseudoPod.

Apr 03 2020

51mins

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CatsCast 289: The Thing in the Basement

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All cat stories start with this statement: “My mother, who was the first cat, told me this…”

It is said that in Ulthar, which lies beyond the river Skai, no man may kill a cat; and this I can verily believe as I gaze upon him who sitteth purring before the fire. For the cat is cryptic, and close to strange things which men cannot see. He is the soul of antique Aegyptus, and bearer of tales from forgotten cities in Meroe and Ophir. He is the kin of the jungle’s lords, and heir to the secrets of hoary and sinister Africa. The Sphinx is his cousin, and he speaks her language; but he is more ancient than the Sphinx, and remembers that which she hath forgotten.

In Ulthar, before ever the burgesses forbade the killing of cats, there dwelt an old cotter and his wife who delighted to trap and slay the cats of their neighbors. Why they did this I know not; save that many hate the voice of the cat in the night, and take it ill that cats should run stealthily about yards and gardens at twilight. But whatever the reason, this old man and woman took pleasure in trapping and slaying every cat which came near to their hovel; and from some of the sounds heard after dark, many villagers fancied that the manner of slaying was exceedingly peculiar. But the villagers did not discuss such things with the old man and his wife; because of the habitual expression on the withered faces of the two, and because their cottage was so small and so darkly hidden under spreading oaks at the back of a neglected yard. In truth, much as the owners of cats hated these odd folk, they feared them more; and instead of berating them as brutal assassins, merely took care that no cherished pet or mouser should stray toward the remote hovel under the dark trees. When through some unavoidable oversight a cat was missed, and sounds heard after dark, the loser would lament impotently; or console himself by thanking Fate that it was not one of his children who had thus vanished. For the people of Ulthar were simple, and knew not whence it is all cats first came.

One day a caravan of strange wanderers from the South entered the narrow cobbled streets of Ulthar. Dark wanderers they were, and unlike the other roving folk who passed through the village twice every year. In the market-place they told fortunes for silver, and bought gay beads from the merchants. What was the land of these wanderers none could tell; but it was seen that they were given to strange prayers, and that they had painted on the sides of their wagons strange figures with human bodies and the heads of cats, hawks, rams and lions. And the leader of the caravan wore a headdress with two horns and a curious disk betwixt the horns.

There was in this singular caravan a little boy with no father or mother, but only a tiny black kitten to cherish. The plague had not been kind to him, yet had left him this small furry thing to mitigate his sorrow; and when one is very young, one can find great relief in the lively antics of a black kitten. So the boy whom the dark people called Menes smiled more often than he wept as he sat playing with his graceful kitten on the steps of an oddly painted wagon.

On the third morning of the wanderers’ stay in Ulthar, Menes could not find his kitten; and as he sobbed aloud in the market-place certain villagers told him of the old man and his wife, and of sounds heard in the night. And when he heard these things his sobbing gave place to meditation, and finally to prayer. He stretched out his arms toward the sun and prayed in a tongue no villager could understand; though indeed the villagers did not try very hard to understand, since their attention was mostly taken up by the sky and the odd shapes the clouds were assuming. It was very peculiar, but as the little boy uttered his petition there seemed to form overhead the shadowy, nebulous figures of exotic things; of hybrid creatures crowned with horn-flanked disks. Nature is full of such illusions to impress the imaginative.

That night the wanderers left Ulthar, and were never seen again. And the householders were troubled when they noticed that in all the village there was not a cat to be found. From each hearth the familiar cat had vanished; cats large and small, black, grey, striped, yellow and white. Old Kranon, the burgomaster, swore that the dark folk had taken the cats away in revenge for the killing of Menes’ kitten; and cursed the caravan and the little boy. But Nith, the lean notary, declared that the old cotter and his wife were more likely persons to suspect; for their hatred of cats was notorious and increasingly bold. Still, no one durst complain to the sinister couple; even when little Atal, the innkeeper’s son, vowed that he had at twilight seen all the cats of Ulthar in that accursed yard under the trees, pacing very slowly and solemnly in a circle around the cottage, two abreast, as if in performance of some unheard-of rite of beasts. The villagers did not know how much to believe from so small a boy; and though they feared that the evil pair had charmed the cats to their death, they preferred not to chide the old cotter till they met him outside his dark and repellent yard.

So Ulthar went to sleep in vain anger; and when the people awakened at dawn—behold! every cat was back at his accustomed hearth! Large and small, black, grey, striped, yellow and white, none was missing. Very sleek and fat did the cats appear, and sonorous with purring content. The citizens talked with one another of the affair, and marveled not a little. Old Kranon again insisted that it was the dark folk who had taken them, since cats did not return alive from the cottage of the ancient man and his wife. But all agreed on one thing: that the refusal of all the cats to eat their portions of meat or drink their saucers of milk was exceedingly curious. And for two whole days the sleek, lazy cats of Ulthar would touch no food, but only doze by the fire or in the sun.

It was fully a week before the villagers noticed that no lights were appearing at dusk in the windows of the cottage under the trees. Then the lean Nith remarked that no one had seen the old man or his wife since the night the cats were away. In another week the burgomaster decided to overcome his fears and call at the strangely silent dwelling as a matter of duty, though in so doing he was careful to take with him Shang the blacksmith and Thul the cutter of stone as witnesses. And when they had broken down the frail door they found only this: two cleanly picked human skeletons on the earthen floor, and a number of singular beetles crawling in the shadowy corners.

There was subsequently much talk among the burgesses of Ulthar. Zath, the coroner, disputed at length with Nith, the lean notary; and Kranon and Shang and Thul were overwhelmed with questions. Even little Atal, the innkeeper’s son, was closely questioned and given a sweetmeat as reward. They talked of the old cotter and his wife, of the caravan of dark wanderers, of small Menes and his black kitten, of the prayer of Menes and of the sky during that prayer, of the doings of the cats on the night the caravan left, and of what was later found in the cottage under the dark trees in the repellent yard.

And in the end the burgesses passed that remarkable law which is told of by traders in Hatheg and discussed by travelers in Nir; namely, that in Ulthar no man may kill a cat.

The post CatsCast 289: The Thing in the Basement appeared first on PseudoPod.

Apr 01 2020

31mins

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March 2020 Metacast

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Transcript

(Alasdair) Hi everyone, Alasdair here.

We’re not going to ask how you are right now, because we have a pretty good idea. You’re fine. You’re FINE. You’re the same version of fine as everyone right now, the one Aerosmith sang about. The one where you’re alternately anxious, terrified, furious and calm.

We empathise. We’re the same.

This metacast was originally written nearly two weeks ago now. It’s been edited every single day since, because that’s how so many of us are living our lives at the moment. Day to day. Change to change.

We’re not going to dwell on the details because that’s all we’re sometimes capable of doing. This is deeply frightening on every level and will be for … the foreseeable future we think. Anyone who says differently is not someone you should be standing within 6 feet of. Literally and metaphorically.

As a friend of mine put it, ‘I’m tired of being part of a major historical event’ and we all are.

No one is making light of the situation. I’m just going to remind you of this: it will pass. Before and after that time, a lot of us are going to be spending a lot of time alone and, in some cases, seriously ill. In situations like this, certainty is both in short supply and a form of kindness. I know a lot of my core anxiety in the last year (or as it’s otherwise known, March) has been tied up in that uncertainty.

Here’s how we at EA want to help.

First, our new episodes will continue on their normal release schedules every week. We’re taking the Escape in Escape Artists seriously, and fiction is the refuge of many. One change: if an episode deals with disease, pandemics or related topics, we’ll absolutely warn you up front both in the episode and on the website.

Second, we’re making an effort to step up our social media presence on Twitter, Discord, our forum and our Patreon page. We’re going to start rolling out Twitch events. Come by and say hello or just log in and leave us in the background if you’re in need of familiar voices.

Third, our back catalogue has over 2400 episodes. No matter what form of escape you need, chances are good we have something that will fit the bill. Have requests for playlists or topics? Let us know. Our experts are standing by.

Fourth, the EA family has started up the hashtag #EscapeRead across social media. We’ll be talking about how we’re tackling our TBR piles and taking solace in fiction. The more the merrier.

(Marguerite) Hello all, this is Marguerite.

We’ve all been receiving emails from companies about what they’re doing to tackle the pandemic and if you’re like me, the only thing that interests you in those messages is how the company is ensuring the health, safety, and security of their teams. Here’s what EA is doing.

To date, we haven’t heard of any cases of Covid-19 among the EA family. How accurate that is, no one knows – many countries like the US and UK have completely failed to adequately test for the virus. But we’re unbelievably grateful our people are doing okay so far.

We’re in near-daily contact with our teams to make sure they have support and good communication. We are so lucky to work with a brilliant collection of people around the world, and their individual and collective outreach has been awe inspiring.

There has been no change to our editorial teams to date as a result of the pandemic. We don’t anticipate any, though of course as things go on we encourage them all to make the choices that are right for them and their circumstances. School closures or employers may be placing new or unaccustomed demands on them, and that has to take priority. For some, creative work is impossible in the current environment and we respect that. For others, it’s a refuge we are honored to be able to offer.

Pay to our senior editorial staff and our admin support team hasn’t changed. We don’t pay them enough, no one in this industry does, but what we do pay isn’t based on metrics like what episodes someone works on or, more critically, how many downloads we have or products we sell. For as long as our donor and Patrons support EA, EA will pay its teams. Nothing will change that.

Our current Patreon goal is also unchanged. Now especially, there is nothing in the world we’d like to do more than be able to step up to paying our associate editors.

To our Donors and Patrons – thank you. Thank you so much for your support, now and always. It has been humbling to learn how many of you consider EA a part of your stress-fighting routine. We have never been prouder of our dedication to our values and our commitment to keeping our episodes free for everyone, and we owe it all to you.

Naturally given the circumstances we urge you to be financially responsible with your support. Oxygen mask principle – take care of yourself first, then help others. If you need to reduce or pause your support right now, we understand. One-off donation options are available through Ko-fi or PayPal, and as we talk about every week there are plenty of ways to show support that don’t cost money. Please take a moment to rate, review and follow our various channels like Apple Podcasts, YouTube, Spotify, and now Twitch. Those signal boosts, follower counts, upvotes, and comments really do help.

And thank you to every single new supporter, every one-off donation, every new member of our audience, every one of you helping others dig into the back catalogue. Thank you for making free audio fiction a part of your life and sharing the joy it brings you with others, especially now.

Finally, a few words to our authors and narrators. A few of you have contacted our editorial teams about your circumstances and prioritizing your payments. We’ve acted on every one we’ve received to date, and we’ll continue to do so for as long as our donations allow. Thank you for the gift of your honesty, and for trusting us to come through for you.

(Alasdair) Small creative industries like ours have always been precarious financially. We all know it, and it is a testament to the passion and dedication of our colleagues that it accomplishes as much as it does. But this blow is harder than most, disproportionately impacting the self employed, the very creative people and teams who give it life.

EA’s focus is to continue providing as much stability as we can for our teams, our authors, our narrators and our audience. It doesn’t feel like much, but it’s what we can do. Thank you for helping make it possible.

We know this is frightening. We’re frightened. We’re stressed and we’re negotiating with that stress, finding ways to deal with it that may not solve our problems but will at least help us keep moving and functioning.

If there’s stuff you’re doing that works for you, please get in touch even if you just want to chat. We’re all going through this. None of us has to go through it alone.

Stay kind. Stay safe. Stay supportive. Stay connected.

Be well, folks.

The post March 2020 Metacast appeared first on PseudoPod.

Mar 28 2020

8mins

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PseudoPod 695: Muse

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“Muse” first appeared in Tales of Blood and Squalor in 2017

Muse

by Sarah Gribble

I noticed him on a Saturday morning. He was fingering tomato plants across the square, nodding every so often at whatever the stall operator was saying. His eyes crinkled when he smiled, but too much, like he’d read the cliché about smiles not meeting eyes too many times and decided to reverse the idea—his never quite reached his mouth.

He didn’t buy a tomato plant. I followed him the rest of the morning; he didn’t buy anything.

Whether or not I had been drinking that morning is of no importance. What is important is when I returned to my dilapidated two-bedroom ranch, I wrote more than I had in months.

I’ve been called many things in my life: alcoholic, mooch, one-hit-wonder. My ex-husband nicknamed me Peter Pan before he got lawyers involved. What I saw as waiting for inspiration to strike, he saw as a refusal to act like an adult and get a “real” job. I got the house, though, so I can’t complain too much.

Meeting Calvin that day—I named Tomato Plant Guy Calvin because he reminded me of a retired model—lit a fire in me that I can’t explain. For hours I sat, eyes closed, hands flying over the keys as I tried to record each and every movement, mannerism, cant of the head. When a young woman passed, did he do a double-take? Did he meet someone’s eyes when speaking to them? When I ran out of what I knew, I began imagining things. Was his slight limp permanent, from some long-ago accident in which he lost the love of his life, or just a minor injury from playing a pick-up game last weekend? Was his worn college tee-shirt a representation of the best years of his life or just the first thing he picked out this morning? The possibilities were endless. He was a font of inspiration and I could do anything with the idea of him.

My problem became—after I tried to write several stories and never made it past the second act—that I didn’t want to imagine Calvin’s life. I needed to know.

Multiple sleepless nights followed. I kicked myself for not driving after him when he left the market. What kind of writer lets their inspiration just disappear like that?

That familiar dark cloud began rising up, ready to envelop me and block out my days like a thunderhead covering the sun. And then, Thursday night, I had the most comforting thought: I would go to the farmer’s market again Saturday morning. People at those things were supposed to be diehard fans of dirty, deformed produce and unpasteurized honey. He was bound to be there again.

I celebrated with a bottle of cheap whiskey.

He wasn’t there on Saturday. I arrived while the “farmers” were still setting up, earning myself many a side eye, and stayed until they tore down and the only sign of the market was a thoroughly smashed tomato ground into the sidewalk.

Even then I stayed, staring at that tomato, noticing how it had exploded, the spatter reaching a couple feet in all directions. No doubt it covered the clothes and shoes of the person who performed the tomato-cide as well. It would probably stain. A person can’t commit a crime like that and not be covered in their guilt.

I briefly entertained the idea of returning the following Saturday—and possibly even the one after that, and the one after that, and every one until I found him. I sometimes get such a surge of motivation, a glimpse of the determination that marked my early twenties, the drive my husband fell in love with. It dissipates quickly these days; by the time I’d left the bench in the square, I’d decided all was hopeless and my only recourse was to crawl into a bottle. The only logical next step was to decide between whiskey and vodka—a decision I couldn’t manage to make. So I got both.

I was half a bottle in when my agent called. She was sorry, it had been years since my last book, she’d given me ample time, there were other talented authors clamoring in the wings, blah, blah, blah. I had some choice words for her. When she told me I should get help, I hung up.

I don’t remember much about the following months besides a blur of late notices, bad takeout, and faux concerned calls from my ex. Was I eating, getting out, taking a shower? What I heard was, Did you mow the lawn, clean the tub, make sure there are no roaches in the kitchen?

At some point I moved my desk and computer down to the basement. I remember this well because I tripped and broke an empty vodka bottle while trying to maneuver it around a corner. I cut my foot pretty bad. I wrapped a clean enough shirt around it then followed up with some duct tape I found on my husband’s old tool bench. Then I had a bottle of something and lit a bonfire in the backyard to which I fed all my unfinished writing. I liked the desk down in the basement better: it stunk of failure.

I only emerged when I ran out of alcohol. To the store—in, out, quick. I couldn’t stand the looks I got, the way mothers pursed their lips and held tight to their children when I walked by.

I don’t know how much time had passed since I’d first seen Calvin. I do know there was a