Gifted

He stared down the barrel of the camera and confessed it all. He apologised, deeply, through muted sobs, for misleading us. For deceiving every one of us so cruelly. For making a mockery of his mystic art. All lies.

And she stared on from the wings. A scorching stare; a poisonous, enthralling smile.

He shook; whether with guilt or with shame or with fear, none could tell. The paper in his hand, from which he read, rustled noisily. His eyes told of the threat of vacillation, but he stayed the course of curious repentance.  And every now and then she exhaled steadily from her position, just over his right shoulder.

“I have caused the deaths of one-thousand, two-hundred and six animals; large and small. Many perished in unimaginable agony.” His lip quivered but he muddled on “A total of seventeen human minds and souls have been lost to my art … my act. These wretches are now with the devil. I am a liar. I am a charlatan. I have masqueraded as a masterful peddler of the wonderful. But I am a vile deceiver. My magic is all illusion. My feats of the impossible, mere theatre.”

The nation drew breath together. Betrayal. The wonder trickled away like so much spilt milk. All fabrication and deception and puffs of smoke, now roiling away. And people were angry.

“There is a basement…” His words caught in his throat. He stopped, broke and recomposed himself. “And that’s where the children are. All of them. You see, it was not enchantment but a sham. A show. And they are there. They are all there.”

As the camera panned closer to his face – a mechanical gesture of incredulity –  the noise of disruption from without the bolted studio doors began and rose rapidly. A rumble of disquiet, becoming, steadily, a chaos of voices; demanding the return of their trust and the salvation of their now-lacerated experience. And they were sharpening their knives.

And in the wings, her smile shrank and a final sigh signified her satisfaction. With him since her youth. Daughter of the first innocent woman who went mad by his trusted hand. This young woman held his secrets like a bouquet and watched them wither with time. And as the doors began to buckle; and just before the anger of the deceived was realised upon the man’s feeble, old body; this deathly posy of secrets was handed back to the world. By her.

Wearing the clothes in which he’d dressed and kept her. Revealing, at last, her lucidity. The magician’s assistant.

The Meagre Clog


Many said that he was begot by the devil himself. Others muttered about a lupine litter of half-human cubs. All knew that he was cast out of the village years ago; that he raised himself from infancy to maturity in isolated, wretched gloom within the depths of a cave on the fringes of Kane Rock. Great Peter was how they christened him.

Few had seen him and fewer still in daylight hours. But all swore that his size would dwarf any man. That his ugliness could curdle blood. Some took pity on him over the years, stitching giant garments, visiting his cave in secret and leaving them at the entrance; cobbling shoes and tossing them into his bleak habitat.

Though his cave was littered with many hundreds of animal bones; though its entrance was dogged by the stench of putrefaction; though many were plagued by the thought of him in their nightmares, Great Peter never once harmed a human soul. Until.

The incident hinged upon a single shoe. A tiny wooden clog that a young man named Seamus Bragg claimed to have stolen from Great Peter’s cave whilst the miscreation was abroad; innocently hunting, obeying his gut. A rough thing it was, that clog. Not more than six inches long – a hollowed out hunk of Yew bark. Though, clearly, a tiny shoe.

“What a meagre thing he must be, to own such a feeble shoe! Great Peter? He’s had us duped all the while!” said the cocksure Seamus, poisoned with liquor and shrieking through a haze of miasma in the damp Inn.

“We should strike him out of our lands for good, that rotted demi-man.” And some of the men, in their drunken arrogance, joined with Seamus and his sentiment. They set out on the road, to the outer rim of the village, beyond the bent oaks, along the plains and the winter-bruised grasslands and up to Kane Rock to take Great Peter by force.

I know this because I was one of those men.

I can still feel the heat of my torch as I held it above me. I hear, still, the taunts we vomited; I feel them on my own now-leaden tongue. I can see, still, Seamus in my mind’s eye. Stepping forward with his own torch, brandishing it near the entrance of the cave and shouting profane threats; holding the tiny shoe aloft and calling:

“Come out, pathetic wretch, for we mean to show you for the grubby little worm that you are!” As he said this, Seamus began lighting chunks of wood that lay about him. He threw them into the cave. And we all followed suit – casting rocks, sticks, bones, into the darkness. All the while, Seamus advanced a little further towards the cave’s opening.

A muffled, rumbling cry came. A shocking shriek of pain. A groan of woeful despondency from within.

What happened next was so quick and brutal that I have to slow down time in my mind to recall it. But I see it with such horrid clarity and I cannot help but sob whenever the memory is formed. I see it. And I see him clearly.

How he emerged from the filth he lived in; rattled by contact of stones and sticks and blazing wood, crying in a dull, low moan, for peace. He stood, silhouetted, in the makeshift doorway. A few panic-fuelled stones made contact with his gargantuan body. He dragged himself forward, into the torchlight.

A great behemoth of a man. A walking, land-living leviathan. His skin, a dusty grey, revealing the pulsing, blue veins beneath. And his face! Oh, that piteous, enormous face.

Using his singular, trunk-like arms to drag himself, he lunged forward with an awful, bone-shattering cry and took Seamus up in his great hand.

With a single gesture, he smashed Seamus’s body onto the rocky ground below. The rest of us, stunned into silence, but unable to move, simply stared as Peter calmed himself, looked at what he had done and gave a single, heart-wrenching sob. He tore the garment, made by some caring hand of the townsfolk, from his bulge of body and threw it over the corpse.

And then Great Peter retreated back into his cave, never to be seen nor heard of again. Dragging one tiny, withered leg behind him.

The Rug in the Smaller Drawing Room

(a Christmas Tale)


Here it is: our first ever audio tale.

We would like to thank B.J. Harrison of The Classic Tales Podcast for recording the tale for us. If you are unfamiliar with The Classic Tales Podcast you can find it on iTunes or on the official website. There are some wonderful, macabre (free) stories in his collection. And you’ll also find some fantastic novels and stories for purchase, too.

And now, our Christmas Tale

Connivance

It is a sacred bond, marriage. A union which tangles the souls and bodies of those in wedlock. We are the keepers of each other. It is something I know. Something I have grown to know.

It is true that I have spent so many anxious evenings, after sun down, considering fleeing; leaving the struggle behind. But as soon as the thought is processed, the wardrobe opened, the carry case half-stuffed with garments, he’s home. Freshly-energised and hot with the new night’s potential.

We have lived this way for three years; I made my choice. To say there is nothing of regret in my decision would be to lie to myself entirely. I used to think our nocturnal rendezvous romantic. Passionate and deliberately different. This otherness, this separation from all I’d know before him, sealed the deal. But these have long-since burned out. And he now seeks the company of others in those black hours.

Even our wedding took place under the stars, with only a few insignificant and anonymous witnesses. He is the only man I’ve ever truly loved. And when I revisit these thoughts, I’m called down from the ledge. I know that I’m mad to want to leave. I start to see the rationality in his explanations; his early confessions; his claims of necessity and survival and of an unslakable hunger. And I begin to accept him all over again. Love conquers.

But then the morning news comes and another animal’s throat has been torn out. Some stray or other has been evicerated and left on waste land.

And things far, far worse. Things I cannot bring myself to think of. There are so many homeless wretches in this city and I thank Holy God, knowing what I now know, that we have a roof over our heads. Though it seems that he’s rarely under it.

I’ll keep turning the other way. Both my eyes are blind.

He sleeps through the day.

From a dream

and the first thing I thought when I came to was that my head didn’t hurt and that this was peculiar as I was sure it had been a terrible fall and I was certain that I briefly felt the base of my cranium crash hard against something (the bathtub?) and it was also strange, I thought, that I was standing but the sense of urgency and need for haste was overwhelming so I left the bathroom quickly and moved downstairs quickly and before I knew it I was in the foyer and the Famous Woman was waiting for me already

and I turned about me and saw that Belle was looking around impatiently and I called out to her and told her I wouldn’t be long and the Famous Woman smiled kindly at me and she said we needed to hurry and I called out to Belle and she looked beautiful and I remembered us as two young people and I realised, again, that I loved her

and the Famous Woman took my hand and we walked out of the foyer and up a long, old staircase and the dust smelled like cinnamon and we arrived on a corridor and the Famous Woman told me Belle would follow us and we walked past several blue doors and behind them I thought I could hear music and laughing and we passed some black doors and I was sure I could hear screaming and tearing and agony and pain and I did not dare to look down because I knew I would see the thick, tarry pool of old blood which seeped from under it

and the Famous Woman told me we needed to hurry but I had to move closer to the black doors and I thought I heard names I knew, shouted loudly over the din of pain and suffering, and it made me miss Belle and I had to move closer still

and I heard scratching and ripping and I could smell something sour which filled my nostrils and made me think of kitchens and of a decision to be a better person in the future and of a terrible New Year’s Eve and of arguments with my parents and of regrets and of Sunday evenings before school as a boy and I moved away from the door and realised I was weeping and the Famous Woman put her arm around me and led me away from the black doors

and we arrived upstairs; a huge courtyard-shaped room with seating along the edge and nothing in the centre and a few people looking in my direction and I was still weeping and the feeling of the Famous Woman’s arm around my shoulder made me feel better but I longed, now, to see Belle and I turned and saw a window at the back of the room and I could see Belle and there were others there and I loved each of them and they loved me

and I moved towards the window and shouted out and I saw Belle was sad and shaking and I wanted to go to her

and I turned towards where the Famous Woman was now sitting and she smiled kindly to me and she beckoned me to sit down and I moved and I sat and she said “There: isn’t that better?” and she reached out her hand and I realised

and I didn’t want to but I realised

and I looked into the Famous Woman’s eyes and she was sad and welcoming and I asked her and she said it didn’t matter and I asked again and I said “Am I dead?” and she said “It doesn’t matter” and I looked at the window and I wanted to go to it and I asked if the people there, the people I loved, come come into the courtyard-shaped room and she said they could not

and I looked at the Famous Woman again and I was weeping and she smiled kindly and she understood and I asked her what had happened because I could not remember and she told me and I understood and I wept again

and she said “You had a terrible fall. In the bathroom. You hit your head, hard.” and she stopped smiling and she said “They didn’t get to you in time.”

and I understood

and I remembered Belle and I remembered us as two young people

and the Famous Woman put her arms around me again and everything started to drift away and I forgot what I’d asked and I felt calm and nothing hurt

and the Famous Woman said “There: isn’t that better?”

Honesty Vault

Siegfried Mason’s wretched skull stares out, still, at all who pass the deserted Honesty Vault. There it sits, in a hollowed-out hole, embedded into the arched entrance; a warning to the cruel and greedy of heart. I pass by now and turn my face to the cobbles. It is shame, not reverence, which moves me.

The Honesty Vault was established by Mayor Thomas Sherwood to share the piteous collected wealth of Oakestone when our humble town was overcoming the terrible famine of 1859. All monies were pooled and stored centrally in the Vault, opposite the great clock in the town square, that a small amount might be taken when needed by any deserving soul. When trade came our way the profits would be submitted to the Vault. When commerce thrived from sales of pigs or of grain or of coal the resultant riches would be added to the collective pile.

The sole rule of the Vault: only ever take what was needed to sustain yourself and your dependents. All other things in the town – food or service – was shared equally. Life, though modest, swelled with comfort and plenty.

The Honesty Vault’s warden elect – an old, deaf verger – sat in a small cabin with a dusty tome; recording withdrawals and deposits after each visit. A regular audit was made and each morning at breakfast the townsfolk would gather to hear Mayor Sherwood read aloud the previous day’s activity (more oft than not a gentle or significant rise is proceeds). There would be food and sharing; music and joy as the town celebrated their togetherness; their resilience in bad times; their strength in altruistic unity.

But after a few years the people of Oakestone grew bitter and savage inside. They saw the growth of wealth and longed for more. But not one spoke word of it; merely festered within.

On a particularly hot summer’s eve, Siegfried Mason (a troubled haberdasher with no wife nor children with a hobbled foot) staggered to the Vault. His head was swimming; hot with the ale he had consumed that evening. Hearsay told that Mason and the landlord of the Black Bull quarrelled viciously about the Haberdasher’s inability to deliver goods on time, not to mention their questionable quality when they were received. That he was a poor and shameful member of the harmonious town. That the idea of community, sharing and equality was lost on him, entirely.

It is said that Mason yelled that he would show the landlord what it truly meant to be a member of this community. Several men swore to the threatening dedication present in his eyes.

The Verger snored from his cabin. Siegfried peered into the dark archway. He shuffled inside.

The morning came. The townsfolk gathered. The entries were read.

*

Mason’s progress, of course, was halted. His trail was traced. He was found in the crypt of the chapel of St Michael. The monies, though, were nowhere to be seen.

Mason was hauled to the town squared and bound to a plank. He was questioned by Mayor Sherwood:

Where are the monies? Where is the wealth which we honestly share?

Mason made no reply whatever. A devilish punishment was devised.

I stood, a mere boy of nineteen years, at the back of the baying crowd. The men and the women gathered around Mason. Each drew a length of leather and dipped it in tar which had been boiled to bubbling point. Each man and each woman then struck him, about the face, for every farthing that had been pilfered. Mason did not cry out.

Eventually came my turn. Though the visage in front of me was no longer the face of a man but a bloodied death’s head aloft a broken, useless body. I made my strikes.

On returning home, my hand as red as an October sunset, a small package awaited me; wrapped in the finest cloth I’d ever seen. I opened it up and found, as every other had that very evening, an equal cut of the town’s accumulated wealth. Less one share.

The arrangements

“It was not like that at all, sir. Dr Hopkins was nice to us all. Good. A good man. And the arrangements, sir, were optional. Not one of us was forced into anything. Not one.”
“Can you explain a few details for me, Bobby.”
“I can certainly try, sir.”
“We found things in that basement.”
“Things, sir?”
“Things, Bobby. Experiments. Test tubes. Chemicals. Equipment. And other things.”
“Part of [inaudible on tape]”
“Could you speak up, Bobby?”
“Sir – it was part of the arrangements, sir.”
“Can you explain any of his…any of Dr Hopkins’ experiments to us, Bobby? There was an awful lot of … waste in the basement [inaudible on tape] incinerator. What exactly was happening down there?”
“That was his business, sir. His affairs. I only ever found my way down there by mistake. We have the run of the place. The run of the whole house, sir. Absolute freedom. Apart from his workshop, sir. Before he found me, sir, I had nothing. No prospects. No money. No clothes, even.”
“And this was part of your arrangement? He gave you material possessions?”
“Yes. Not just bits of fabric or scraps of food, sir…”
“And how many others were there in the house?”
“Sir?”
“How many other people lived in the mansion with you and Hopkins?”
“It altered. Sometimes there were ten, other times, thirty. Sometimes just two or three.”
“And how long did people stay?”
“It depended. Depended on their [inaudible on tape].”
“Sometimes they left?”
“Yes. They left and [inaudible on tape].”
“Where did they go?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes they were there and the next minute they weren’t. The Doctor – he was a good man sir – said he’d set something up for them outside.”
“Were you ever offered…”
“No, sir. The Doctor said I was too old to fend for myself. Besides [inaudible on tape] too long. Too dark. Too cold.”
“Bobby, I have more people to speak to. I need you to remain here. You’re not in any trouble, at the moment, but the Doctor is in plenty. What you think about him, what he offered you, was wrong, Bobby. I need just a few pieces of information…”
“Sir, he’s a good man. He fixed me. Fixed me and cared for me and I’m alive now ‘cause of him. Due to his kindness.”
“But that came at a price, Bobby?”
“An arrangement, sir. Half me. Half him. We met in the middle. I got my clothes, [inaudible on tape] my room, my food, my friends, my time.”
“And he took something from you? Took something from each of you.”
“As part of the arrangement, sir, yes, sir.”
[Disturbance on tape]
“For the benefit of the tape, Bobby, could explain what you gave in return? What your side of the arrangement involved? [Pause on tape] What did he take, Bobby? What did the Doctor take from you?”
“Well, sir … ”
[Disturbance on tape].
“We didn’t get that Bobby, once more could you speak up?”
“My eyes, sir. He took my eyes.”

The Devil’s Door

When we were small, my brother weaned me on lies and false tales.

He told me, aged six, that my parents were wicked wolves dressed as people; that they were waiting for the perfect moment to gobble us down. I tried for weeks to peel the mask off my mother’s face whenever she bent to kiss me. Once, I caught her with a sharp fingernail and opened a wound on her neck. It scarred her for months and she never bent to kiss me again.

He told me, aged eight, that each time an impure soul sneezes a fallen angel comes to them in their sleep to stuff the noxious air back into their lungs. I paced the floor, sleepless, for a whole month, holding back my coughs and splutters, waking the whole family night after night. From that day onwards, my room was locked from the outside.

But the worse tale was that of the Devil’s Door. I was eleven.

When I was hiding in the cellar one particular day when my brother’s taunts had driven me near mad I noticed a small dark patch on the wall, deep in a damp corner. It was tacky to the touch and smelled like rusted bicycle spokes. I stared at it. It seemed to transfix me. As the weeks went on, I returned to the cellar and the patch grew into an expansive black slick of stuff which rode up the cold wall. I sat, cross-legged, in front of it and lost myself in its strange, ghoulish pattern.

Over my should, on one occasion, I heard my brother’s arrival but did not turn. I hoped – however futile the hope – he would leave me in the gloom.

“Oh. You’ve found it,” he said.
Found?” I replied, not taking my eyes off the wall.
“Yes. The Devil’s Door.” He approached me; whispered deep into my ear. “And you are now his keeper.”

He explained to me that this was the very Devil’s entrance to the world, his doorway for stealing souls and trapping them in Hell; that I had found it and that I was now bound to stop him; that I’d found it just in time for he had already begun stalking out bedrooms as we slept, sizing us up.

My blood froze – I could not catch my breath: “In our bedrooms?” I cried.

“Yes! But you are his keeper! You have to keep us all safe. Hold out your hands.” My brother pushed my palms onto the wall. I felt the black ooze squelch under them. I closed my eyes. There seemed to be a physical shift, too, in the matter itself.  I heard voices cry out and the heat of a hundred eyeballs on my face.

“You have to stay here! Or we’re all damned to Hell where we’ll burn forever. Never ending pain, never ending torment.” He crept away and left me there.

And there I stayed. If anyone came near, I would screech and cry and lash out. I would bite and kick and pierce their eardrums with my din.They sent doctors. They gave up. They sent priests. They could do nothing. I never explained lest the secret roused the Devil’s temper.

My mother brought all my meals; small parcels of food which she would place in my mouth and then leave me where I was to chew them down.  The stain grew and grew. My hands were overcome by it and my eyes dared not leave its surface. I saw faces. The souls I’d failed. Those who the infernal beast had trapped before I noticed the doorway. They spoke to me. They thanked me for sealing up the Devil’s Door and hailed me as his keeper; that I was preventing the terrible fate befalling any others.

I tell you this as a preamble. I do not know – in truth – what happened to my brother. I only heard the screams of the following day. I awoke in the cellar. My arms had slipped from their vital position and I replaced them immediately. Again I heard the sound of crying, broken souls. And something spoken upstairs, through tears, about my brother’s absence; something further about a black stain in the bed where he was last seen.

Something tugged at the torn edges of my soul when I had the news confirmed. Something not entirely unwelcome, I am ashamed to say.

He never returned to us.

It’s been ten years. I am now a man. The lies of my brother ring around my head but I have forgotten his face. I sit here, still, withered but triumphant as the Devil’s keeper. My mother feeds me, as she has for so long, and my father has long since abandoned us. The palms of my hands creak and crack from the adhesive I have used to seal them to the wall. I could not risk another breach. My arms have stiffened and the blackness of the doorway has crept up them, saturating the skin there, coating and embalming the flesh. It’s vileness bulges is my veins and I feel its veil dropping over my weary eyes.

But I can never move.

The last patient of St Agatha’s

The night porter was too late. He’d heard the feeble clang of the old servants bell and had sped immediately to the sixth floor where he knew Dr Constantine to be conducting his rounds. The storm had presented many delays to the old man’s journey but, a kindly and good-hearted physician, he finally arrived and proceeded to creep from room to room, checking on the slumbering and dozing patients.

The nurses at St Agatha’s had named her Emily though the child herself had never spoken to identify herself. On leaving the hospital for the evening, her clothes claggy with the close evening heat, Sister Gould spotted something apparently foraging in the undergrowth of the hospital garden. She approached the animal, alarmed but not deterred by its wild thrashing in the foliage, and discovered it to be human; a small girl with tattered clothes and too many scrapes and cuts to count. Her eyes were balled so tightly that for a moment the sister assumed they were lost to her. The poor mite scrambled and cowered at the good nurse’s touch. She looked somehow harangued or even pursued by some unseen thing. As if she were scratching at the very ground to shelter from the horrid, plaguing presence.

The Sister knew the timing to be fortuitous for the storm was building to a tremendous crescendo overhead. She brought the girl in for warmth, food and fresh clothing. She was cleaned and a large, secure room was found. The young, wretched thing was made as comfortable as possible. The big oak door was locked for the child’s safety, with only the senior medical staff being in possession of a key.

At no point did she open her eyes, as if she were trapping something within her head; nor did she speak a word. On occasion, a weak but gutturral hiss would come forth from her throat. Coupled with this, the nurses observed how the eyeballs of the child convulsed and flicked from side to side under the thin lids and she writhed and struggled until the hissing had passed.

When he had finally surmounted the storm and arrived at his place of work, the Doctor threw himself through the hospital’s front door, peeled off his coat and immediately went about his rounds. Everything proceeded with a banal regularity and only the intrigue of the new patient kept the old man’s full attention.

An hour passed and the creaking grandfather clock in the staff quarters announced midnight . And moments afterwards, the servants bell began its bitter panic, summoning the night porter.

Upon arriving at the room where Emily had been housed, the porter found the door wide open; nor was the girl anywhere to be found within. The Doctor lay on the ground, groaning. His throat was slick with blood from the many tears and gashes that decorated it. He gurgled and a strange, brown foam had collected about his mouth. One of the porters knelt beside him to listen to his attempts at words. A crack of thunder drowned the language out.

“Doctor, where is the child?”
“Child…!” the doctor tried.
“Yes sir. Where is little Emily? Is she safe from harm sir?”
“The thing….” There was a dreadful pause.

The porter thought the old man dead and feared awfully for poor Emily’s safety. What manner of creature had taken her?

“The thing … in that room …” Again, sound and light ricocheted around the old building. Finally, the Doctor summoned his final reserves of energy and shrieked out with staggering volume: 

“THE THING…IN THAT ROOM…IS NOT A CHILD!”

Another crack of thunder and a startling flash of lightning illuminated every hallway; a hundred fuses were shorted in a single instant.

The hospital was plunged into darkness.

The night porter felt the Doctor stiffen in his arms; heard his final groans and some ghastly rattle from deep inside him. And then, silence.

Somewhere, over his shoulder in the darkness of the ancient corridor, a sound infected the porter’s ear; the growing, clinging menace of an animal-like hiss… 

Edward

Edward has talked his mouth inside out and now he has no mouth at all!

Here is a man who had mastered the pernicious art of conversation-murder, using his knowledge (and not his wisdom, for he has none) to garrote the innocent and the intrigued; to pounce upon idle chatter and suffocate the life out of it; to drain a topic of its curiousness (for that is a subject’s lifeblood!) and leave only a dried and dusty husk-like corpse with not even enough flesh for pedants to pick at.

Ignore the tears collecting in his eyes. He was warned this may happen. Serves him right.