The expanse of the sky and the vital orb of the sun were unknown concepts to Wilbur Swinburne. Likewise the people of his universe were unaware of infinite space, the stars lost in the depths of vacuum and dust. His world was enclosed, labyrinthine, except in his most primal dreams. The faintly glowing points of illumination, arranged on the ceilings of the countless open spheroid spaces, metal caverns, conduits and tunnels, were Wilbur’s only contact with light. The organic was rare too. In the mile high steel caverns of the Borderlands bathed in a synthetic and dank luminescence, there were jungles teeming with swarming life forms. But hardly anyone went there; the Borderlands were feared, hated by some. Small pockets of vegetation in lost rooms and corridors, even whole caverns were rumoured to exist but these only increased his terror of the flesh.
Metal surrounded Wilber. Above and below were the curved and embracing sides of the Sphere of Execution, corroded and brownish red with rust above, but below with ancient blood. The cross hatched platform he stood on was also made of metal, also red brown-the colour of dried blood. Ahead was the Machine, focus of his complete attention. It stood immobile and unlike the neighbouring walls of rounded riveted steel was immaculately cleaned; its arrays of surgically sharp blades, saws and brutal cutting instruments glistened in the dim radiance of the ever-glowing lights, placed aeons ago in the topmost part of the sphere.
Fear raddled Wilbur’s soul as he stared and stared at this contraption of slow dismemberment and disembowelment. His feelings of fortitude and believe fought with his biological instincts, the fear induced by the flesh, the flesh that betrays the spirit with its horror of pain and its love of pleasure-the desire of union with other bodies made of flesh.
He was as naked as birth, as the intercourse of sinners, but elimination was the aim of this nudity. Tied to an iron pole with tight straps of an antiquated substance, Wilbur did not struggle or cry. His face was serene and he focused his thoughts on the Machine. He stared at his punisher or maybe rescuer, perched on top of the Reaper of the Flesh, The Machine of Execution, on a crows nest or towered platform. The Executioner was dressed in dull metallic grey, a tapering hood over his face, eyes glinting through tiny slits. The control panel before the robed and hooded figure was made up of switches, knobs and joy sticks coloured black, shinning and vivid.
Wilbur could hear the faint low whispering of the spectators who stood on the circular balconies at the edges of the sphere, but The Executioner’s eyes were the only living object within his sight. A strap looped around his neck forced him to stare at the assortment of sharp bladed instruments rather then the other prisoners before the avatar of the Iron God. They like him were naked, bound to poles, covered in a thin film of expectant sweat.
They awaited their moment of chastisement with a steely and tense calm.
Before his death, Wilbur Swinburne was a lowly Instructor in the School of Artifice and the Elimination of the Organic. Situated beyond the bustling compartments and spheres of the dormitory areas and pleasure zones, the School bordered unexplored territory; a seemingly infinite collection of interlinking metal caves, a maze of artificial potholes, dank sewers and huge stagnant lakes confined in cathedrals of steel. Here unrestrained growths and colonies of mutant biological forms were known to occur. The School was dedicated to the worship of Argon, The Iron God and his android son Balus the Martyred, created in the image of Man composed both of iron and flesh.
After a few hours of sleep Wilbur with the other Instructors would lay flat, clothed only in their undergarments, in the airless heat of the School’s Temple. The glowering sculpture of black metal representing Argon, a complex unruly mass of spikes, robotic arms and a boxed head with a glass screen like a TV set, stared down at the prostrate bodies. His son, Balus stood beside him, a human figure made of scavenged pipes and salvaged girders, only mildly less intimidating.
Then The Ritual of Purification was performed. Rocking backwards and forwards, chanting the dirges of their gods, condemning the envelope of slowly dying membrane that was the flesh, they stuck sharp needles into their skins, drawing blood which streaked down their bodies like rivulets. For this reason the floor of the Temple was marked not only by rust but the red stains of centuries of spilt blood. After the Ritual the unrelenting discipline of the school day started, where young boys were beaten and cajoled into the scriptures, to prepare them for the moment when their spirits would be released in a glorious haze of pain and anguish- the day of their deaths.
Sometimes to test his resolve but also to harangue the fallen, Wilbur would venture into the recreation and pleasure zones were the weak willed, those driven by the demands of the flesh would gather.
According to Wilbur’s religion food was manufactured by the tentacled Slime Goddess Assyby, otherwise known as the Dweller in the Abyss, who existed in the unexplored depths of the world, constant enemy of Argon, the God of Iron. The inhabitants of his territorial area including the Instructors (after all they needed to eat), would awake to gather the food from the service hatches and depots dotted around the residential zones. When space became too confined they had spread out, colonising other disused and abandoned chambers. At the centre of this densely packed region were a cluster of wide caverns taken over for the purpose of swapping and trading objects, of meeting and conversing and finding partners for the relieve of sexual appetite. And also for debate between the different spiritual and political organisations that sometimes turned into outright conflict.
As Wilbur Swinburne swayed through this teeming hive of humanity packing the concourses and terraces, surrounded by stalls swapping odd objects, even rare organic plants and creatures, he felt eyes staring at his robed and bandaged form. Some turned away, others cursed him, even spat but most bustled by with only a mildly interested glance. Like always low level nausea gurgled in his belly as he scrutinized the misshapen beasts held in iron cages and transparent globes, sloshing with sickening water. They oozed untrammelled flesh, exuding suckered tentacles or hairy mammalian arms. Worse of all were the huge insects, arachnids and crustaceans slithering and crawling, piled up in boxes or grubby fish tanks, smirking stall-holders holding them high to show the crowds flocking to look at these abominations called life.
But this time something new disturbed his mind: boredom. The usual routine was taking place, a routine which dominated his life since his advancement to Instructor level. He would leave the School and walk to the debating platforms; mushroom shaped constructs of metal almost reaching the hard roof of the massive chamber, with flat tops reached by spiral staircases; and shout and holler religious sermons ending with a gory display of self flagellation. People ether turned away in disgust or laughed; only a few listened to his impassioned speeches with interest. Now pushing his way through the rabble, his stomach heaving at the sight of animal carcasses hanging from meat hooks, futility inflicted him.
But a solution occurred to him. As if the idea appeared in concrete form a female body was thrust against him in the crush. She extracted herself and looked into his eyes but noticing his garb, thinness and pallor moved away with a grimace of distaste. More horrified was Wilbur who flung himself back cursing and making the symbol of Balus. Her breasts and buttocks flimsily held in a transparent mini-dress were exaggerated smoothed globes, heaving with promise to the male gaze but to Wilbur a personification of the sin of carnality, the worse crime engendered by the organic.
The female was an Erotomat, manufactured human originally created millennia ago by the unknown entity which provided the light and food of Wilbur’s world. Created for pleasure the sex hormones coursed through the veins of these replicated beings, female, male and even hermaphrodite and they lived purely for desire.
Grown in the vats of the Dweller in the Abyss, according to his faith, they lured the unwary and lustful into damnation. But because like the Son of Argon they were android these creatures were redeemable. The sacred text written by the disciples of Balus glorifies the first and only reformed Erotomat, a hermaphrodite who deliberately ended his/her life by cutting off the pleasure appendage and sowing up the hole.
Wilbur’s idea was this: follow the creature and find the abode of the Erotomats. Rather then preaching to the sneering rabble who treated his sermons as a freak show why not enter alien territory like the missionaries of legend.
Without any delay in case fear took hold he watched intently her vivid form rising and falling amongst the gawpers. Surreptiously he followed her down one of the dimly lit but teeming steel alleys connected to the main thoroughfare, stinking with rotting organic produce, odours of crammed bodies and slick with runnels of water coursing along the corroded floor; his ears deafened by the shrill cries of hawkers. People kept out of his way so there was little pushing and shoving and her artificial body stood out like a sign from the throng. It was not long before she disappeared into an even narrower cavity of gnarled metal. This was where the streams went as brown liquid rushed at the bottom of the sewer. The walls were curved and yellowish green with moss and lichen; tiny stunted weeds fertilised by the stained water grow sparsely from the cracks and crannies. But all this was too much for Wilbur who retched and cursed. Inert, caught by his own disgust, he stared down the almost lightless tunnel as the female Erotomat turned and vanished into a side passage.
Anger surged inside him then, against the repulsive displays of raw life, of the sick stinks of excretion and the spiritless procreating ever increasing rind of living things. Now that Wilber was sure of the general direction of the colony of Erotomats, he would fortify himself and return spiritually armed, to preach the word of the Iron God to a new audience.
Wilbur stared at the dark entrance of the tunnel after the long day of instruction was over, calming the revulsion of his mind and stomach. By chance the weak overhead lights were on which was very lucky for Wilber.
There were days and nights in his world but the illumination switched itself on and off for an erratic duration of time. The phenomenon was studied intensely by those who called themselves scientists, but they were unable to work out a configuration of light and dark even after centuries of observation. Nearly all the inhabitants slept and waked when they felt like it as they carried electrical torches supplied in the same way as the food. But the School had access to mechanical time pieces of unknown origin. Their sleep patterns and routines were rigorously controlled by the Chief Disciplinarian from a dusty crumbing time table as old as the founding of their order.
At last using his will power to the utmost he entered the tunnel, the grimy water sluicing over his bare feet. The smell of waste matter made him heave but he continued on regardless. The enveloping fear of a life-form scuttling or slithering over his feet or worse falling from the ceiling onto his head, sent waves of cringing spasms across his skin. Fortunately he found what he was looking for quickly without any extended scrabbling through filth. The channel on his left where the Erotomat disappeared ended in a sculptured opening. Crafted in now eroded but once elaborate metal were the lips and the top bud of female genitalia. The stream of dark liquid flowed into this cavity like discoloured urine but its natural course reversed. Mercifully the full impact of the design was muted because of Wilbur’s obvious ignorance, but still somewhere in his brain a link was made. He retched with abhorrence backing off slightly but his strength of will came to his aid once again and he passed, his shoulders hunched, through the virginal portal, gripping the Holy Book of Balus the Martyred to his chest.
Blinding light almost toppled him from his perch but he kept his balance. He tottered on the edge of a small waterfall, trickling down into a sparkling lagoon, dizzying in its size. It was so immense the furthest wall was invisible in a haze of mist, but the green, moss covered walls on either side were just about visible. In the lake were mounds, islands of ancient wreckage, heaps of corroded, twisted machines, broken and shattered; giant rusting cog wheels, intricate contraptions beyond repair and as old as history, thrown in piles above murky, algae green waters.
This vista was obscured by the coruscating illumination above. A scorching lamp in the distant ceiling, the brightest Wilbur had every seen, lit everything like direct sunlight. But as he clung to a protruding piece of metal, the gurgling stream washing his feet in dirty water, the scene before him focused. It was worse then he imagined; not only a lake of life begetting liquid but life itself. Many of the islands were not only composed of steel ruins but flattened soil where plant life was cultivated-gardens! Blasphemy: food grown in the earth to be consumed in the gullet. The Instructor gulped in air, breathing in the vomit inducing musk of fertility. At least these gardens were ordered he thought but elsewhere wild greenery proliferated over earth encrusted hillocks of alien debris; stunted but verdant trees with flowers like sex organs, bushes and shrubs with pink, red and purple blossoms, spread like a lush disease. Calming himself with intakes of breath, Wilbur surveyed with eyes sharpened by disgust, the organised structures made of adapted metal, the bridges of iron connecting the islands. And people, naked people.
He had to move. Wilbur had to make a decision; go forward, face his fear and preach, cajole, scream at these terrible beings or go back, back to the safe routines of the School, act in cowardice. He made his decision. With jerky over-confident movements he descended the slick but rusting ladder beside the waterfall and crossed the ramshackle bridge to the first island.
Three figures came to meet him from a hut which had once been a transportation vehicle but whose use had long since been forgotten. They were without clothing, two muscled men, perfect brown skin and exaggerated masculinity and a woman also perfectly shaped, perfectly feminine but all with the unreal sheen of artificial, bodies. Adding their own creativity to the mix intricate tattoos of coiling snakes, nude bodies in copulation festooned these flawless androids.
Wilbur stared stopped in his tracks, but after a minute ordered in a commanding voice that he should be taken to the village meeting place. He was covered in sweat and his training in self-control was stretched to the utmost in producing a demeanour of stern authority. Inside he shook like jelly. The three Erotomats shrugged and whispered to each other. Already they were caressing each others lower parts and the men had grown erections, while Wilbur looked on in horror but also fascination. He was speechless for a moment unable to avert his eyes but he realised this depraved behaviour was normal to them like shaking hands or hugging a companion. He began to raise his voice but they just laughed at his thin starved frame encased in thick robes in the sweltering heat. But as if this was a new game they lead him over another bridge to a larger mass of damaged and primordial technology covered in clinging soil, abundant foliage and tumbledown architecture built from scrap metal.
A larger group of Erotomats gathered to view and giggle at the pathetic visitor, everyone naked, of supreme sexual allure, shinning with the incredible colours and designs of their tattoos. Wilbur held his head up high and stared with forced superiority at the demonic horde of flesh and desire unleashed, issuing from the heaped metallic rubble of their shelters or coming across the bridges. He looked with inward terror at the sculptures and totems of sexual congress scattered beside the houses and most horrible of all the hermaphrodites, beautiful women with huge male appendages and handsome men with ripe female breasts and round openings.
He knew these creatures were virtually immortal, thousands of years old but all though their organs of reproduction were exaggerated they could not reproduce. One day through slow decay, accident or better still outright extermination by the virtuous they would no longer exist, but until that glorious day the only, almost impossible option was conversion. Wilbur braced his legs on the ground, slightly apart, taking the Holy Book from his loose robes and began to chant the words of Balus the Martyred. Shouting the gory prayers to death, extinction and salvation, the diatribes against the sins of the flesh, against flesh itself, which besmirched the sanctified light of the spirit, his voice and body shook with genuine passion.
His audience of sixty or seventy Erotomats surrounding him in a circle, smiled, laughed, nudged each other, some scowling their faces in distaste, but paid scant attention to his ranting, raising voice. After a while some began to return to their homes or cross the bridges.
Five of them, hermaphrodite, male and female began to engage in nonchalant but enjoyable fornication, combining partners of all three sexes. The shuddering torsos and abdomens vibrated, undulated like a ballet of aroused flesh, a dance of desire. Wilbur tried to shut his eyes at this obscene but graceful spectacle, raising his voice to an even higher pitch as if reaching his own climax, but the erotic show held him transfixed with loathing but profound enthralment.
Close by was a woman with black hair and deep penetrating eyes, gazing seductively but mockingly at him, the self same woman who had bumped into him at the market. Her body was supernatural in its loveliness; curves and bundles of pillowed female flesh and Wilbur’s articulations lowered in volume.
Something was happening, something he thought he had excised years ago, when as an adolescent his Instructors had put needles in his penis for the crime of masturbation. He was becoming aroused. The deadly pull of Eros, dormant for decades had arisen even out of his starched and constrained soul. To Wilbur it was like something alien had taken him over and was forcing the flap of skin at the lower end of his abdomen to inflate like a balloon. He stopped his chanting, lowering the Book of Balus. The woman pressed her breast and thighs against him, placed her hand in his robes and undergarments and stroked until he came. He felt the jarring orgasm only briefly, almost in shock, the water of life staining him.
He crumpled to the floor, dropping his blessed tome that sank into the glutinous mud, vomit escaping his mouth a reflection of his other climax, sobs raking his body. Rage possessed him and he cursed the woman with ancient insults-whore and prostitute. He would have physically attacked her if he could but a line of Erotomats formed to protect her. Screaming in despair and defeat, leaving behind his precious book to rot, he fled.
A whir from the Machine. A nub, a screwdriver of razor sharp steel, tiny but deadly began to revolve. Wilbur Swinburne stared at the now blurred end of the rod as slowly it extended from the complex bulk of the device. A humming like tinnitus as the Executioner moved his hands like a musician over the control panel, a symphony of pain coursing through his mind. More blades, cutting edges and killing saws spun, but some ominously moved inexorably forward without any spin. Another sound: The hooded Executioner chanted softly but audible above the buzz of death, the dirges of Argon and Balus. His eyes seemed to reflect fierce concentration.
There were yells to be released on Wilbur’s left; a supplicant losing his nerve. He would be untied and quietly, in solitude, in shame and disowner, garrotted. His body would be dumped in a life-infested pothole to be consumed by maggots and crawling things: his soul sent to the Abyss, to be eaten by the Slime Goddess, taking an infinite amount of time to be devoured. The shouting died away but through this the Executioner continued his chanting, moving his arms across levers and knobs.
Wilber’s iron will was fortified. He thought back on the long process of approval; to be accepted for divine martyrdom in the Sphere of Execution. He described his sin and defeat at the hands of the Erotomats to The Board of Holy Truth, the highest authority. He grovelled before them denouncing his appalling pride, his seduction by evil. He took on the punishing exercises of penance lasting weeks to proof to the Board his worthiness to enter the Sphere.
At last he was accepted; the grand culmination of an Instructor’s life, to die in ecstatic agony. The intricate process of the extraction of the flesh, leaving the soul bare but pure lasted a month. Slowly, ever so slowly the skin was peeled, eyes and ears, fingers and toes, the penis severed, the inner organs taken away, until nothing was left of the body not even bones; the supplicant kept buoyantly alive and aware for a very long time by drugs administered through the screws and knives: Weeks of sublime pain.
A wave of terrifying euphoria passed through Wilbur as he watched with heightened awareness a shaft ending in two scintillating blades move towards his genitalia. The skin, the bodily organs had to be excised, the desires arising from there slimy all over embrace destroyed.
A sigh almost of pleasure escaped his lips…
Saturday, 21 January 2012
I stood in the cold dampness, hunching my shoulders, waiting for the cabman to bring my two leather cases. I pulled the door bell a second time. A peal of thunder echoed in the distance and another gust of wind whipped fallen leaves at my already sodden overcoat and upended my umbrella. I cursed the foul weather as my cases were at last left at my feet. The cabman extended his hand for a tip and roughly I rummaged in my pocket, thrusting a few coins into his hand. Leaving with a grunt he returned to his hansom, the one single horse frisky and agitated, neighing forlornly. I heard the cab rattle down the driveway leaving me alone in the dreary half-light, occasionally lit by weak flashes of lightning. But still the blank façade of the door remained unopened.
It opened after a third irritable pull of the bell. Standing before me was not a servant but my friend, Alfred. I rushed forward carrying my cases to escape the rain although by now it had done its worst. I held out my hand with enthusiasm but only received a grudging squeeze in return. Taken by surprise, he was normally an effusive man, I was forced to take notice of his features. Untrimmed beard, blood shot eyes, hair mussed, he looked older then his forty eight years. Instead of his usual wide grin of welcome, a grimace of forced recognition and bewilderment disfigured his face, which slowly turned to exasperation.
“Ah of course, you were returning today,” he said under his breath. “I had forgotten.” He turned his back on me and entered a doorway on his right, his gaunt and shabbily dressed body starkly illuminated by a flash of lightening. The peal of thunder which inevitable followed shook me unexpectedly. By the time I had recovered Alfred had disappeared leaving me with my cases and a puddle of rainwater at my feet.
The ornate wooden staircase leading to the second floor of the Tudor manor was obscured in a thick gloom. The darkness on the landing was impenetrable like a starless night, like a vacancy in perception. Although I could not see the lower stairs clearly, I could just make out the baleful curls of carved vines entwining the banisters with there overlarge ripe fruits. On entering Arnhiem Manor two years ago as Alfred Boswell’s assistant, these oddly unnerving decorations caught my eye for the first time. Afterwards I noticed other even more disquieting attributes of the 16th Century dwelling but those vividly realistic but grotesque tendrils stuck in my memory. At times in the dim flicker of electric light (the only house for miles around and probable in the whole of Surrey to be equipped with the marvel of electricity) I was convinced the vines actually moved and the fruit bulged outwards obscenely. The present lack of electricity, even any radiance from the spare gaslights and the mysterious shortage of servants kept me rooted in the hallway. But I acted soon enough and went after Alfred not without annoyance, leaving the cases and the broken umbrella.
I had an inkling of where Alfred might have gone. The library was his retreat on the rare moments of vexation: he did most if not all of his extensive extra-curricular studies in this large book-shelf filled space. I never approved of his amateur interests; his pouring over crumbling medieval manuscripts, obscure and priceless Kabbalistic grimoirs and philosophical treatises of the supernatural. We were men of science. In our laboratory in the East Wing we researched the strange but rational properties of electro-magnetism and the tiny, minuscule particles powering the immense energies of the universe. But Alfred explained to me the links between the mumbo-jumbo of men mired in superstition and the early beginnings of scientific rationalism. The Elizabethan astrologer and occultist John Dee, a man who purportedly discovered the language of angels, was also an advanced mathematician, and the greatest scientific genius of them all, Sir Isaac Newton, had an immense collection of alchemical books. Alfred was fascinated with the parallels of the systematic occultist and the scientist; both manipulated nature to uncover the secrets of matter, transcending the mundane veneer of reality, reaching out to the mind of God.
Or maybe the Devil, I thought. Not that I believed in the Devil but a quick glance at the writings concerned provoked an atavistic chill inside. It did not help my state of mind to think also of the origins of Arnhiem Manor, its dark glamour and mystery.
The library at least had some light when I entered. It came from a gaslight over the main reading table, between two long worm holed bookshelves crammed with misshapen and stained leather bound tomes. Alfred was bent over a time-worn book large enough when opened to encompass the table, with his reading glasses on, a bottle of whisky and a glass by his side, gazing intently at what looked like a medieval woodcut illustration. Other then this tiny corner, the library was obscured with shadow. Brief illumination came through two stained glass windows high on the north and south facing walls, but only when bursts of lightening lit up the church-like interior.
There was something disturbingly unorthodox about the windows. The north wall window depicted the Tree of Knowledge from Genesis in intricately crafted colours, lush and tropical, wound with the coils of the Serpent. Unusually no Adam and Eve were present and the scene was incredibly accurate for a 16th Century interpretation. The Tree and the flora in the background were no mere imaginative versions of the artist but based on real types of equatorial plants. The snake was vividly evil, its eyes dead with a malign vacancy, its length crushing the Tree like living muscle. The stained glass window on the south side did show Adam and Eve but their nudity was a detailed carnality, shocking even to the most worldly of individuals. But for all this outlandish art it was the two mirrors in alcoves to the side of the south wall that upset my aesthetic sensibilities the most.
As I confronted my friend I was unable to see the hideously carved frames and smeared cracked glass. They had always been part of the house. The previous owner, who never lived in the building, citing uneasiness with the general atmosphere, particularly emphasised the mirrors in the library. Originally there were three; the missing mirror forming an apex of a triangle and directly beneath the south side window. Albert decided to move the third looking glass, and supposedly the most disconcerting, out of the library long before I arrived at Arnhiem Manor. I had never seen it and was reportedly in one of the rooms on the second floor.
“Obviously you are preoccupied, Alfred but I’ve travelled far and was expecting a warm welcome,” I said, realising in the instant I spoke I sounded harsh. “Please tell me if something is troubling you.”
“Nothing’s wrong Edwin as far as you are concerned. So leave me in peace and go to your room, you know where it is, it’s unchanged since you left.”
“But where are the servants, why no lights,” I said my voice rising. “I’m sorry but this is awfully odd to say the least.”
I’d been away from Arnhiem Manor for nearly six months to be with my elderly and infirm mother. At the time of my leaving Alfred was his ebullient self, upset though at my departure at such a crucial time in our experiments. Emily his daughter was unusually withdrawn even for her quiet and introverted personality. I had written to both of them over the intervening weeks and received replies up to a few months ago. This cessation of communication caused me only slight concern but looking back, Emily’s replies were short and strangely flat. This should have worried me more then it did but presented with the bizarre and unfriendly behaviour of my best friend, a more disturbing light was shone on these past events.
“I have rid myself of my servants except for Mrs Johnston, the housekeeper.” He abruptly ended his sentence and stared vacantly at the wall in front of him. I waited embarrassed for what seemed like a very long time, but eventually he lowered his head and began to read once again.
Irritation at my friend’s rudeness had faded, replaced by anxiety. Something was terrible wrong I belatedly realised. “Nothing has happened to Emily has it,” I blurted. With a sigh but more like a groan, Alfred rose from his desk. His fists were balled and his face deformed by a snarl. I backed away. Emily’s name had triggered a reaction in his brain and now he approached me, wishing to do me harm. But at the last moment he softened slightly and growled softly. “Get out.”
I turned around meaning to leave the library, my mind in chaos. Emily was ill, even dying I thought. This must be the explanation of Alfred’s irrational behaviour. I had to find Emily and it was no use relying on her father. Angry and frightened all at once I strode ahead, my back to my friend. A lightening flash illuminated the gloom. I flinched, as in a split second a ghostly wraith-like figure was revealed. But as my eyes got used to the half-light, I recognised Emily. The door leading to the drawing room was open and standing in her flimsy night gown was my fiancé, my darling Emily.
I rushed forward meaning to embrace her, but the mere sight of her close up stopped me, This was not my Emily of old but a different creature; emaciated and starved. Her face when I last set eyes on her was blooming and animated, but now her rosy features were deflated, sunken to a sallow paleness without flesh. Her hair was reduced to long strands of string, the life gone. And her eyes: empty and haunted, buried in the sockets of her skull. Her body was bone covered by a thin layer of skin, her belly enlarged with malnutrition.
“Emily, my dear…” I whispered in shock.
She spoke then, staring at her father, ignoring me, a ghastly husky parody of a voice. “Nightmares again, father…I’ve dreamt about the corridor, the infinite corridor.” She stood almost on the point of collapse. “It goes on forever, father. Into never ending darkness…” She droned on completely oblivious to my presence. I was too stunned to speak.
Alfred put his arms around his daughter, his anger replaced with concern. He led her from the library and I followed blankly, trailing behind like a forgotten servant. As I walked dejected into the hall, automatically picking up my cases but leaving the useless umbrella behind, my mind raced. My surmise was correct; my darling was dying and the cause of my friends’ strange behaviour. The sweat trickled from my forehead in the hot atmosphere and a terrible urge to shake Emily, to get some reaction from her, surged briefly in my befuddlement.
Alfred went first into the profound darkness at the top of the stairs. Disappearing as if engulfed I waited for him to re-emerge like a swimmer from the bottomless depths. Instead a soft glow like a dying halo revealed the features of my friend and I realised he had turned on the gaslight. Gingerly we plunged forward. Entering the second floor corridor was always unsettling but now the lightless expanse before me, only mildly alleviated by the gaslight, was like entering a tunnel. On both sides were doors embedded in whorled and almost black wood-panelled walls. Beyond the last set of doors, six in all, the abysmal dark began. I could well imagine Emily inflicted with nightmares by the corridor. In her precarious state of health, her feverish imaginings enflamed by the house were keeping her awake. I opened my mouth to warn Alfred about the effect this dreary and overheated pile was having on my fiancé, but as if I did not exist they both vanished into Emily’s bed chamber, shutting the door in my face.
I was left alone. The only move I could make now was to enter my own room. The gloom was less pronounced here but just as unnaturally humid. I was soaked in my own sweat and I stood and wiped my face with my handkerchief fished from my pocket. Throwing my cases into a corner and bypassing my single bed I went to the large bay windows and loosened my stiff collar and necktie. I hauled one window open, letting in the damp autumnal air.
The storm had gone revealing a bright full moon, marred only by long strips of cloud drifting gently across its cratered surface. The moonlight and the stars like uncountable pinpricks in the black velvet of the heavens transformed the garden below me into a mysterious shadowy landscape, where I could make out ripples of light in the pond and in the basins of the non-functioning fountain. A greenhouse loomed on my left beside a tumbledown fence separating the grounds from farmland, the panes dimly reflecting the rays of the moon, but the illumination was more pronounced on the water behind the Sycamores. Stippled with glittering beams the River Thames flowed on its way towards the smoke and grime of London which seemed to me as distant as the silver orb in the sky.
A terrible witch’s cackle arose from the grey fields and it was only after an archaic shock had passed through me its origin registered in my brain. It was a fox’s cry.
Awaking after a night of heat and restive dreams I washed in the basin, dressed and attempted to search for Alfred and Emily, but met the taciturn housekeeper instead. Mrs Johnston led me to the small kitchen where silently I sat at the stained wooden table and eat the meagre breakfast she grudgingly prepared.
I sat slumped over my plate of porridge unable to eat anymore, thinking despondent thoughts. If only I had not stayed away from Arnhiem Manor for so long or at least written more regularly. If only Alfred had informed me of Emily’s condition. So many ifs, all of them useless now; there only point being to inflame my mind with regrets. I jumped slightly when Alfred entered and in the stark light of morning his state was even more shockingly degraded. His hair was greasier, long and uncut, his beard like a bird’s nest; the eyes swallowed by nightmares of insomnia, red as blood. He was stooped like an old man, his breath stank of whiskey and as he sat across from me I noticed the unpleasant smell of rancid sweat.
“Dear God, Alfred, what the hell is going on,” I said, unable to contain myself. “You have to tell me everything. Everything for Christ’s sake!”
“Edwin, I want you out of my house by the end of the week.” His voice was surprisingly strong, belying his outward appearance.
Again I was speechless. By this one spoken sentence, Alfred was rejecting our close friendship, slamming a door on my love for Emily.
“But…” I gathered myself mentally, the dormant anger rising like an unleashed dragon. I was aware of this from the past, an unrestrained, irrational rage that occasionally burst forth. I was ashamed and had made the greatest efforts to control it. Now I almost lost control but although the provocation was immense I temporally smothered it.
I got up and said firmly without a stutter or tremble in my words, “I am not leaving Arnhiem Manor, Alfred. I love your daughter and I have proposed marriage. She has accepted my offer. Furthermore I demand to see Emily and wish to speak to her.”
“Alfred’s shoulders shook, a stifled laugh was seemingly contorting his body but was he sobbing instead? I never had time to find out; with a rapid movement he fled from the kitchen. I tried to follow him but he ran outside into the bright gardens. Although my temper was urging me to hunt him down, another idea suddenly crossed my mind. I was loath to do so but realising Emily was still in her room I would knock and hopefully she would allow me egress to her sick bed. I was desperate to talk to her.
Tapping gently I spoke her name but no reply was forthcoming. Raising my voice slightly I knocked harder on her door and I thought I detected a sound, almost imperceptible, of a muffled moan, but I was not sure. Before I could commence with my attempts to raise Emily I heard footsteps on the stairs. Quickly I retreated to my room and withdrawing the key in the lock stared through the hole. It was Alfred and he was unlocking Emily’s chamber. I realised, my mind too confused to react with speed, he was keeping his daughter under lock and key. By the time this shocking realisation hit me, Alfred had shut the door. Again I hesitated. With an extreme effort I calmed myself and nonchalantly approached the shut door. Lowering my head I listened intently; I heard Alfred whispering words of comfort and disturbingly muffled, incoherent cries arose from Emily. Dejection claimed me then, forcing me to retreat. What else could I do in the circumstances; I was excluded, expelled from this intimate family group. Alfred in his despair saw me only as an unwelcome intrusion; his grief sending him almost insane, locking away his own daughter. Short of committing an act of unseemly violence I was helpless.
I sat on my bed, putting my head in my hands and gave vent to unmanly tears.
The day was spent roaming the grounds of Arnhiem Manor and walking the river path towards Hampton Court, in a daze of introspection. My mind did not take in the tranquil swaying of the willows in the breeze, the graceful swans gliding across the water or any details of this clear, fresh day, but the peacefulness of the countryside, after a few hours, relaxed my mental turmoil slightly. Around late afternoon I retreated to the near deserted Old Manor Inn and sat nursing a pint of strong beer. I had decided all was hopeless. Emily was fading away fast and it would not be long before she died. Alfred would no doubt eventually recover from his terrible loss so soon after the death of his own wife, three years before and once the crippling pangs of grief had numbed he would apologize for his behaviour. Tomorrow I would return to Oxford; there was no other course of action.
It was almost dark when I returned to the dismal hulk of the Manor. I let myself in with the key the housekeeper had given me and was immediately struck by the high temperature. By some unknown agency, the heat, maybe created by the modern laboratory, was trapped. But it was a process I could not understand. The sweat immediately beaded on my forehead as I lit a candle, left thoughtfully by Mrs Johnston and I decided there and then to visit the library. Sleep tonight would be impossible. Lengthened and deformed shadows clustered around me as I moved and the pitch black corridors, the impenetrable darkness, appeared to be holes into endless space, extinguishing light without mercy. All around me the house seemed to elongate and expand into dark emptiness, as if the manor was reaching its true shape, lying outside the confines of its walls; a shape beyond comprehension.
Entering the library was like stepping into an immense cavern, but I soon found the gaslight over the reading desk and lit it with a match from my pocket. The faint glow released by the light only accentuated the deep wells of non-illumination encompassing the rest of the library. On the desk was the same ancient volume Alfred was reading yesterday and my eyes were drawn involuntarily to the illustration on the opened page.
Depicted in primitive style without perspective a dreadful human sacrifice was taking place. A bearded man in occultist robes, covered in obscure magical symbols, cut with a monstrous blade a foetus from the womb of a naked woman, tied on an x shaped cross. Crudely inked on both sides of this picture were the same type of mirrors in the alcoves, and making an apex of a triangle, with the bloody sacrifice in the centre, was a portrayal of a larger looking glass. The illustrated frame was seemingly crafted on one side into entwined foliage, on the other with human bodies of both sexes. A staring eye of hatred was at the top of the frame but beneath was another eye, this one filled with fear. This must be the artist’s impression of the missing mirror.
I sat on the chair beside the table and turned the pages carefully, surveying the Latin text and the frontispiece. The book was an account of a heretical 16th Century sect and their doctrines by one of their acolytes. Of course I knew of their leader Charles Marlowe, architect and occultist. It was he who built Arnhiem Manor, designing the house to specific dimensions, corresponding to his peculiar beliefs. What these beliefs were I did not know in any detail; I suppose you could describe them as a satanic form of Gnosis. Alfred had explained Marlowe’s irrational ideas but like all supernatural or religious dogma it was of no interest to me. The demise of Charles Marlowe and his followers did have an affect on my mind because of its gruesome nature. A rabble of ignorant peasants led by a bigoted priest massacred the entire sect, the women and children included, blaming them for the disappearance of infants in the vicinity and the failure of their crops; the usual story of religious intolerance towards unorthodoxy played out monotonously throughout history.
But on closer study of this old tome I began to understand the antipathy held by the Elizabethan priest and his flock. Charles Marlowe’s cosmological theories were certainly unconventional. He believed the universe was created not by God but by the Devil. God did not even exist and was a mere fiction invented, alongside the concept of guilt, by the weak and powerless, to strangle the natural lusts and cruelties of the aristocracy. Arnhiem Manor’s architectural structure was specifically designed by Marlowe as a symbolic reconstruction of the ten Satanic Universes and as a means of entry to these diabolic realms. Here the three mirrors came into their own, acting as gateways or portals but only when an act of sacrilege like blood sacrifice was performed.
I smiled. To what ludicrous and irrational formulas did some people have to stoop to justify their acts of debauchery. But the depictions of horror and sadism this cult engaged in, specifically towards children and pregnant woman, was enough to wipe the smile off my face.
Distracted by the sound of distant footsteps echoing through the house, getting louder as they approached the library, I swiftly extinguished the light and hid in the dimness of the towering book cases. Alfred entered carrying an oil lamp and I retreated further into the musty shadows to escape its beam. Walking stiffly like he was suffering from cramp, he went to the vacant space between the two mirrors in the alcoves. Resting the lamp on the wooden boards of the floor, he stared as if transfixed into the mirrors; first one for about a minute and then the other. These manoeuvres became repetitive like a ritual; he swivelled, stared as if in a trance, than turned, staring fixedly into the opposite mirror and so on.
This display of obsessive behaviour frightened me at first but eventually fear gave way to irritation, then outright anger. I should have pitied him, obviously his mind had snapped under the terrible weight of his grief, but instead I felt exasperation at his ridiculous movements, while his daughter suffered upstairs, locked in her room. Without thinking I strode forward and seized Alfred by his shoulders and spun him around to face me.
I was almost on the point of raising my fist when I caught sight of the mirror on my left, nailed to the wall of bare brick in its alcove. Its absolute hideousness stilled my hand as the eye carved on the top half of the frame seemed to stare back. While the rest of the round frame was undecorated wood, the eye had been formed by an expert craftsman; it oozed hatred and seemed to quiver with its force. Reflected in the stained surface of the looking glass was its opposite on the other side of the library. It too had an artfully sculpted eye but this one was fearful as if terrified by the other. I looked at our reflections retreating to infinity and vertigo engulfed me briefly, as if I was falling down a well that had no end.
Alfred had fallen to his knees and tightly grasped my trouser leg. Tears were streaming down his sunken cheeks. He gurgled something incomprehensible but then visibly took himself under control. Taking his hands away he stood up and backed away.
“I’ve…I’ve a confession to make…Edwin,” he stuttered. His eyes darted urgently but refused to settle on my own. “I’ve…it is too terrible, just terrible what I have done. Edwin, end my pitiful, repulsive life, snuff me out like a flame but listen first to what I have to say.” As he continued his monologue his voice grow in confidence but he still refused to look me in the eye. “Something has happened, something awful. Emily is with child and…” Here he stopped and gulped back a sob.
I was speechless but what came next was beyond belief.
“Edwin, please Edwin, forgive me. It’s the house, the mirrors, maybe my drinking, I don’t know, but I was not in my right mind. I am the father of the child!”
This blunt confession took a few seconds to sink in but when it did I lost control. My fist, hard and fast, made contact with his face, knocking him to the ground. He scrambled to his feet, spitting teeth on the floor, dripping blood. My large hand held his collar and hauled him towards the door. What I was doing at that moment was a mystery even to me but unconsciously I was making my way to Emily’s bedroom. I suppose I wanted her to witness my fury towards her father, to see him beaten to a pulp for his crime. Alfred did not struggle but allowed himself to be dragged through the dark house, even though on the stairs I kicked him viscously below the knees when he held back slightly.
We reached our destination and I shouted “Give me the key.” Weakly, still spitting blood he did so, his hand trembling. I put the key in the lock and pushed open the door, my mind in so much turmoil, bubbling with rage, I did not bother to knock.
Now it was my turn to fall to my knees. Before me was a sight of the utmost horror which would imprint itself so forcefully on my brain it would haunt me until my death. I knew instinctively I would from now on awake on most nights screaming, my head incurably impregnated with nightmares. Red gore like thrown paint defiled the pale cream bedspread and the curtains of the four-poster. Leaning against the foot of the bed, her head thrown back, eyes’ staring in front of her, was my beloved, her body still alive, still twitching with residual life. Firmly held in her hand was a bloodied carving knife taken from the kitchens; with this she had torn open her own belly, exposing her innards. A whipping motion so quick I could not really comprehend it, maybe a piece of rope or a vine from a tropical plant, shot back to its source; a mirror attached to the wall. In these few seconds of movement I thought I saw coiled in its grip, a tiny malformed blob of once living flesh, roughly in the shape of a human baby. It vanished into the reflecting surface of the looking glass, directly in front of the four-poster and the vacant line of sight of Emily.
So this was where the missing third mirror was situated. It was as evil looking as the picture in the Elizabethan book, far more evil in fact, because this was the real item. The two eyes on the frame were crafted with phenomenal skill, staring with insane hatred and fear and the entwined tendrils of jungle foliage on the one side and the obscene naked bodies writhing on the other added to its primeval malevolence. The glass itself, I was sure of this although it was beyond scientific explanation, was void for a few minutes; I mean really black like a puncture in illumination, a fissure in reality. As the heat like the steamy tropics shimmered dizzily around me I felt pulled to this black chasm, this eternity of nothingness. Terror overwhelmed me beyond the mere fear of death as if I was on the point of being entombed forever. Alfred was now crouching in a corner, his arms wrapped around himself, rocking too and fro, muttering like a madman. I vomited profusely and mercifully blanked out.
The insane behind the iron doors moaned or chattered aimlessly, as Dr Redgrave with a burly uniformed guard, rattling with keys, led me to Alfred’s cell. The asylum out beyond Guildford was a bleak but secure place, surrounded by pinewoods and protected by a forbidding wall. I questioned my own sanity by going through with this visit. If I disproved my theory I was facing my own slow decline into madness. If the theory was correct I was facing something far worse.
Although a sensation in the more disreputable news sheets the trial did not last long. I was chief witness for the prosecution: in my anger and despair I condemned Alfred, backed up by the statement of the housekeeper concerning his irrational behaviour. I knew he was innocent of murder but this was beyond belief. He was guilty anyway of a heinous crime and deserved to suffer the full consequences of the law. My friend sat passively in the dock and refused to answer any questions, just nodding and shaking his head. In the end the defence’s plea of insanity was accepted and he was sent to the newly opened Millbank Asylum for the Criminally Insane, where he would undergo experimental brain surgery to calm his fevers; the only humane option.
After this I tried to forget. I returned to Oxford deciding I would write scientific treatises and teach at the University. When my mother died I received a large inheritance giving me an independent income and I gave up teaching and eventually my writing. I became a recluse, refusing all contact with friends and relatives. From the beginning I found it difficult to sleep; I was plagued by nightmares. Then the waking dreams began. Each time I glanced into a mirror I saw things, indistinct at first, wriggling beneath furniture or a rushing blur across the carpet. Then months later the source of these movements became more focused. Tiny creatures with many legs like centipedes, myriads of them scuttling and squirming, covering the walls and floors, the chairs, the tables, everywhere. But only behind the reflected surface of a looking glass; there was no trace of these things when I turned away and stared at the room I was standing in. This gave me hope; I throw out every mirror in the house. But after a calm couple of weeks when I began to believe I was free of these frightful visions, I begun to see in any reflective surface the same seething mass of insectiod forms. One night I awoke the servants with my screams when I caught a reflection of my head, devoured by these awful life forms, in a glass decanter.
There was evidence these ghastly apparitions were not confined to my unravelling mind. The temperature in my house began increasing to levels that would be unbearable in India although the few servants I had never complained. I became terrified of stepping out in my garden with its abundant vegetation, home to all kinds of crawling things. My skin began to itch and once when I lay awake in the sweating endless darkness I heard the distant susurration of minute creatures and horror of horrors, the feel of microscopic feet across my scalp and cheeks. At last what I feared the most happened and one day I found beneath the dinning table, a small insect entity no bigger then a fly; its mandibles drawing blood as I tried to pick it up.
I decided then that there could be only one solution to my appalling situation. But first I had to visit Alfred for a test, a test that would prove nothing nor save my life.
The thick iron door of Alfred’s cell was opened by the guard and I followed him in. The bare walls closed in with one barred window letting in only a minimum of light. Sitting on the pallet, dressed in the grey serge garment of the inmate, his protruding eyes staring into space and his head shaved with huge stitches on the top of the skull, was my former friend. I felt no pity for this wretched creature, the animal that had defiled my beloved Emily, only disgust. Dr Redgrave told me the lobotomy had completely pacified him, so I went over and took out the shaving mirror from my pocket and placed it in front of his face. Nothing happened, but the a twitch crossed his slack, drooling mouth and after a while he violently scratched and pummelled at his body, letting out a blood curdling howl of extreme terror and revulsion. The guard blew his whistle for assistance and Dr Redgrave pulled me away. The last sight of Alfred Boswell, once my mentor and closest friend, was a thrashing madmen held down on his hard bed by the orderlies as they restrained him with leather straps.
I sit now at my desk finishing the last paragraph of my account. I still do not understand what is happening to me; is madness like a disease that can spread from one person to another or has the gruesome suicide of my fiancé, unleashed a contagion from beyond space and time or from the depths of the remote past or the far future? I will never know. The solid reality of the revolver lies on the blotting paper of my desk as if willing me to pick it up, put the barrel to my head and pull the trigger.
Friday, 13 January 2012
My companions, sharing the cramped tent sheltering us from the incessant rain, are a young man and an even younger girl. The man is barely out of his teens; a student of mine, who begged to accompany me on my idiotic expedition. He was a fool who at least had the excuse of youth. He now mumbles incoherently as the blood soaks the rough bandage wrapped around the jagged stump of his left leg. He stepped on a mine, a few days ago, littering this part of war torn Cambodia. But there was no going back or any medical help except the simple first aid kit we carried with us and we continued upstream in our small boat, escaping areas of human depravation and danger until we came to a remoter area, a forbidden zone of thick dark rainforest, a place of dread for thousands of years.
Looking down at Michael’s sweat drenched features, contorted with pain, I felt guilty; guilt at leading him into this foul environment of fecundity and death. Guilt was an emotion dominating my whole life and it was the reason I was here. It drove my philosophical research at Kings College, London, my obsessive pouring over ancient books and manuscripts, my quest for the secrets of the universe. But regardless of this so-called objective study, what I was really looking for was escape from the constraints of a guilty conscience. It was when I meet Camilla, the Queen of Pimps that everything came together and led irreversible to this god-forsaken jungle.
I looked at Michael hoping he would die soon before the ‘forms’ surrounding us infect his brain, before he is transformed. His eyes reflect consciousness of his predicament, awareness worse then the irrational dreams, the shifting miasma of fever induced nightmares and the gnawing pain and horror of his wounds. I am sure he comprehends, he knows where he is; he is fully conscious of something more monstrous then his own death, something far worse.
I could run, take the remaining supplies and attempt to make my way out of the jungle. But I don’t know if the black book of dark incantations I hold will protect me from the Arboreal Forms if I am travelling away from the Temple rather then towards it. I desperately wished I had some morphine left, enough to put Michael out of his misery. I have no firearm to use on him; to approach the Temple with any weapon other then the Blade is against the strictures of the ritual, so is using the Blade until the correct moment. I threw away my automatic miles away before entering this tangled labyrinth of wet frondescence.
There is movement, a twitch of the tent flaps. I jerk my head away from the sweaty, half naked and comatose body of my friend lying on his sleeping bag. A brown skinned hand strangely stiff, the fingers clenched, is slowly moving through the opening. There is something else moving which tells me immediately this is no mere native of the jungle. Along the arm ripples roll like squirming maggots beneath the flesh of a corpse. Before long the top half of the body is revealed streaked with the constant swelling and my eyes are unwittingly drawn to the head. A huge pulsating mass of matter, itself made up of a multitude of tendrils, is clumped to the back of the head and three organic pipe-like proboscises, vibrating with inner ichors, extend from the blob into the empty eye sockets and raw gaping mouth of the face.
Bringing my right hand into contact with the diabolical grimoire, I pick it up and flourish it before the malformed thing and with my left I clutch the girl forcing her to stand upright. With an effort of will I lower my head and hurl myself towards the once human creature forcing it out of my way and stumble into the moist gloom of the rainforest, dragging the child with me.
Unable to help myself I stare back at the tent. There is neither sound from where I stand holding the girl’s arm nor any disturbance from within. There is silence except for the constant stream of rain plummeting from the distant green canopy of the gigantic trees soaring above me. Already I am saturated and my tough army boots sink into the rancid mud, but I don’t care. Minutes slowly pass and my eyes are glued to the entrance of the bedraggled and sagging canvas shelter.
Eventually something emerges from the tent, stooped at first and then standing upright. It is the infected thing blinded and gagged by the living tubes thrust into its eye sockets and mouth; the brain like glob on its head vibrates with unnatural life.
I inwardly predict what will follow and sure enough Michael appears from behind this monstrosity. But it is no longer my friend and companion. The same type of composite matter is attached to his skull and three extensions of writhing flesh have penetrated his eye balls and oral cavity. There is a difference; blood and the white jelly of his eyes still streak his cheeks and chin and his mouth clenched around the invading organic pipe twitches as if he has only just finished screaming.
Turning, stifling a groan, I run helplessly, pulling the girl with me. Although my mind is clogged with horror and disgust I do not flee blindly but keep to the faint trail that finally ends at my destination, the objective of my quest: The Temple consecrated to the Arboreal Orb, the Eternal Eye and the gateway to the Ten Universes, the unearthly spheres and the emanations of purist cosmic evil.
As I trudge down the pathway shut in by humid abundance like a disease of greenery, sweat and rainwater like a second skin embracing my body, my mind wanders back to when I made my awful discovery.
The moment of eureka, the moment of elation but also despair, occurred in a brothel of all places. But why not. A den of vice is very appropriate. I understood at last that reality was reducible to sex, domination and coercion. This was no mere abstract philosophising; I had material proof, solid scientific evidence. The implications of my intellectual breakthrough burst forth like a sexual climax, here in a Bangkok brothel, not far from the University.
Through my rifling of age-old occult and illicit tomes, research into Kabbalistic doctrines and finally my work in the laboratory of a scientific colleague, I had found what the ancient philosophers were looking for: the meaning and purpose of the universe. I thought my guilt would disappear. If the cosmos and everything within it was evil, if morality did not exist, could not exist and never did exist, what was the purpose of guilt?
But I was not the only one who understood the truth. Camilla Armstrong, CEO of a multinational company but also proprietor of an underground network of brothels catering for paedophile pleasures, knew these secrets long before me. Camilla made my acquaintance soon after I published my findings (couched in highly obscure mathematical language in a small circulation science journal) and we became lovers. I was open about my conclusions, using her as a soundboard for my obsessions. But she knew more. She was part of a centuries old and very secretive organisation, whose members included some of the highest ranked politicians, business leaders and intellectuals in the world; followers of George Browne, a 16th Century Alchemist and Satanist who had come to similar but even more startling deductions five hundred years before me. I was inducted into the Order of the Arboreal Orb, the name of the occult society, a year after my meeting with Camilla, and I was given total freedom of their extensive library to complete my studies.
Here, in the air conditioned chambers of the Order’s hidden headquarters, situated in the lush forests of the Escambray Mountains of Cuba, I spent my time pouring over the lost books of diabolists and perverse sorceries stretching back to the unbelievably ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia and the Indian sub-continent. My mind swarmed with cosmos shattering formula, dread rituals for the reawakening of monstrous deities from a forgotten past and images of a hellish bestiary whose extraterrestrial forms were difficult for the merely human mind to grasp. To take my mind off this swirling vortex of horror I made frequent visits to the colourful vibrant hub of Havana, where I slacked my thirst for young flesh. But I always returned to the books, especially the obscure notes and articles of the doomed scholars who had ventured too far into the depraved thinking of George Browne. Browne’s Magnum Opus, his masterpiece, the ultimate grimoire of decadent philosophy was lost since Elizabethan times, but through the incoherent scribbling of his intellectual descendents I had an idea of where to find the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle.
Clutching the edges of a diary of a forgotten 19th Century explorer, leather bound and scuffed with usage, my tired eyes staring at detailed sketches of a large Asiatic Temple complex and extensive lines of fading handwriting, the final piece of the puzzle was before me. The Temple was weird, familiar sacred Hindu architecture but warped, metamorphosed as if dedicated to a pantheon of darkness rather then the gods of light.
Through the writings of this long dead adventurer who had spent his last days in an insane asylum, I discovered a vanished world, an impenetrable forest, dense not only with tropical flora but with a malign menace, keeping out everyone except the most foolhardy of Western travellers. I learnt about the Arboreal Forms, a concretization of the parasitic principle; a life-form made up of a teeming host of mindless entities, worms of basic living matter. Acting as a guardian to the Temple, its myriad offshoots infected sentient creatures turning them into zombies. A sickeningly vivid depiction described the process overtaking its human victim, one of the orderlies of the expedition. Burrowing into the head via the eye sockets it directly took over the brain, a third tentacle of composite forms entered the throat tunnelling its way to the spinal column.
But it was the explorer’s final speculations that really twisted its barb into my imagination: It was possible the victim remained conscious, conscious but under the control of an unknowable alien object. If I had known I would actually witness this terrible consumption myself, I think I would have had second thoughts about leading my own expedition. At the time though the idea of finding the key, a gateway to the Ten Universes and maybe finally to the Eternal Eye, overpowered any qualms I might have.
It was not long before I was on my way to the stifling jungles of Cambodia, convulsive with fanatical curiosity and doing the bidding of a sect celebratory of immorality, an immorality embedded in nature, symbolised by the teeming fecundity of the rainforest.
The jungle was changing. It was becoming something other. On both sides of the trial, above and in front, the wall of greenery which dripped with moisture and the giant fern leaves steaming in the heat were coated in a hanging growth resembling Spanish moss. Purplish in hue, glowing with a strange luminosity, it fell from the high branches like a thin curtain, trailing across my scalp. I noticed clustered deep within the shadows of the forest globes of fungi like oversized puffballs, emitting the same type of eerie light but green and yellow instead of purple. Thin cable like vines issued from these rounded organic objects spreading outwards, wrapping themselves around the trunks of trees and reaching as far as the highest branches. The enormous hardwoods infected in this way were dead. These new forms of life were sucking the juices out of the ordinary terrestrial flora.
The aberrant moss, the fungi and its vines were becoming more extensive, engulfing the commonplace vegetation, eating its very soul. The light had changed too; instead of the deep green gloom of the rainforest, a new intense form of illumination spread its influence. Originating in the bizarre parasitical plants it swirled and pulsated hypnotically and rhythmically, bright and uncanny like the beginnings of a bad LSD trip.
Strange crumbling statuary and ruins were glimpsed through this hallucinatory light. The statues were of sinister gods and goddesses related to Hinduism but somehow twisted into grotesque, monstrous and mutated shapes. Some sprouted manifold limbs, long suckered tentacles ending in sharp hooks or talons; others had wings growing out of their misshapen backs, huge and enveloping. Their bodies were bloated like the evil twins of the elephant-headed god Ganesa, layers of stone fat sliding and slipping around the plinths they stood on; or dangerously voluptuous and feminine like the goddess Kali. Their heads were not in the shape of a benign, jolly elephant or a transendentent woman but a variety of arachnid and reptile busts; horrible to gaze for long into their many faceted or lizard eyes. The artistry was otherworldly. Although invaded by the outlandish creepers, these statues were seemingly imbued with living energy, as if at any moment they would come alive.
The pre-pubescent girl I dragged through the shimmering incandescence was awakening from her daze. With a yelp of terror she broke from my grip and ran ahead of me, following, without thought the path ahead. I scrambled after her, desperate to catch up and bring her under my control. Without her I was lost, my whole endeavour, my life work would be destroyed. My heart thumped uncontrollable in my chest, the sweat soaking my shirt as I ran, shouting her name, scraping the encrusted moss like the webs of some gigantic extraterrestrial spider off my face. Then without warning she turned and ran back, a look of wild horror eradicating the youthful lines of her features. Desperately she swerved around me but I grappled her to the ground hitting her head against a stone. Limp like a rag doll I picked her up and flung her over my right shoulder, hoping I had only stunned her.
Weighed down with the child I carried on but guilt was intruding into my obsessions. I felt the closeness of the supine body of the unconscious girl and my thoughts returned to the ramshackle hovel in Phnom Penh where she allowed me to violate her passive and non-responding body for a few coins. For a few moments I saw myself as if I was somebody else and I felt sick deep inside, soul sick. I had become a monster, a beast, dragging this wretched and debased fourteen year old girl to her doom. Tears began to fall down my cheeks and I sobbed. I thought how different my life might have been; respected by my peers, a professorship at one of Britain’s most prestigious universities, maybe even fame and adulation from the public. Instead I was a puppet, a tool of the Order of the Arboreal Orb, a mad scientist, dirty child molester and criminal psychopath. But above everything I felt guilty. I was not strong enough to be pitiless.
I almost dropped the girl then, ready to kill myself with the Blade if need be, to end my worthless life. But like a sleepwalker in a never ending nightmare I walked on. As I did I steeled my mind to the facts, to my philosophical and scientific discoveries. In a world, a universe, were ethics did not exist, what was the point of guilt. A useless emotion, as useless as a tiger that had compassion for its prey.
Then I staggered into the clearing and I froze. I understood now why my captive had run back with that look of ungodly fright on her face. Before me was the Temple, the penultimate objective of my quest, devoted to a relatively minor deity from the unfathomably depths of time and space; Mogoloth, the Devourer of Souls, the hideous spider god, guardian and gatekeeper of the Arboreal Orb. An entity whose size was unbelievable immense, miles in length, whose food was human minds consumed forever in its cavernous stomach. It was said that at the end of all things, time and matter, the digested excreta would be expelled at last; a sticky world enveloping mass of dead souls.
Dominating the clearing the temple’s high towers and copious pilasters and arches, layered like an oriental but contaminated weeding cake, filled my head with dread that tore my very being. The carvings encrusting the structure like cancerous growths from another planet turned the Temple into a phantasmagoria of malign arachnid and reptilian shapes; insane gods and goddesses proliferating upwards and outwards, devouring or copulating with each other like an army of crazed interstellar ants. I stared and stared, rooted to the spot, unable to move by the sheer ghastly wonder of it all. The designer of this edifice of insanity was beyond genius, the craftsmen had to be demons possessed by an unholy spark of creativity. From the unnatural jungle surrounding the clearing, giant tendrils and creepers reached out and engulfed the building, encasing it in webs of brightly coloured vegetation, sprouting preternatural blooms; funnels and tubes with wavering antennae like stamens issuing from their purple cavities. On top of the roof of the dark entrance, an arch bigger than the others, in the centre of the Temple complex, a banyan tree, massive in size, sent down its thick roots like a mud slide almost blocking my route inside.
Still holding the girl on my shoulder I at last moved, making my way very slowly towards the entangled opening. Pushing with my left hand while holding the girl with my right I edged around the lumps of root matter breaking up the masonry. The stone floor and walls were pitted and humped, broken by the extending limps of the banyan tree, eroding the hideous eons' old statuary and faded paintings. Sweating profusely I emerged into the cavernous interior, the arched, immense roof supported by a line of giant pillars shaped into mammoth idols, redolent of an evil stretching back to the beginnings of time: Gigantean squids, spider gods, lizard beings and aquatic horrors from the depths of an ocean on a world hidden in the vastness of space. I felt dwarfed by the immensity of it all as if I was entering a cathedral designed by Lucifer. On every side were the misshapen monstrous forms of the gods and goddesses of a universal psychosis, the mind of Satan brought to light.
Directly in front was the altar; a circular wall forty or fifty meters in circumference and five or six meters in height with ancient steps leading up to its lip. I took one step at a time towards the altar; my eyes glued on the colossal statue behind it, obviously a depiction of Mogoloth, the Devourer of Souls. It had a many eyed head with a gigantic mandible maw; its body coiled like an enormous woodlice in the process of curling into a ball and its eight long serrated arms arrayed at its sides arched over my head. As I moved further up the time-worn steps I noticed the top set of jointed arms gripped an enormous cracked and stained mirror in the shape of an oversized eye staring downwards into a seemingly never ending pit.
I knew then my calculations were correct; one year in a thousand the staring eye of Mogoloth opened waiting for its sacrificial victim. I was on time and the ritual would be performed effectively. Slowly I climbed, holding the still unconscious girl in my arms.
The wall of the altar was in fact the raised sides of a well or deep hole in the ground. When I reached the end of the crumbling stairs I gazed vertiginously into its depths, where I was almost certain I detected faint movement suggesting something huge and repugnant. Across this gaping hell-pit was a narrow stone platform like a diving board, blotched with the fading red stains of sacrificed blood. Nausea swam in my stomach suddenly and I retched emptily, laying the child on the hard stone of the platform. She softly moaned as I striped her of her rags and hurled them into the cavernous hole beneath me, falling like scraps of discarded paper thrown into a volcano crater.
I withdrew from my belt the Blade and I took the book of satanic incantations from the pocket of my mud encrusted combat trousers. I opened the grimoire to the correct page and rested it next to the head of the girl, staring at the ghastly drawing of a fleshy mouth or vagina like opening, where within its folds of flesh nestled an eye, hate filled and malevolent like the gigantic eye above me. Surrounding the drawn mouth were characters of a language long extinct, words written millennia ago. As I knelt in front of the prone adolescent, raising the devilishly sharp Blade above my head, gripping the handle crafted into the obscene bodies of copulating demonic forms, I begin chanting the words softly but raising my voice subtly as I continued.
Eventually I am almost bellowing the barbaric and savage language, as an energizing power shoots through my frame like electricity, stiffening my penis in a sexless erection. The girl’s eyes open when I am nearing the climax of my ritual and her mouth rounds into a shout of terror. Plunging down, as the last phrase of the appalling verse escapes my lips, the supernatural knife slides into the soft skin of her left breast, piercing her heart. Her body thrashes wildly from side to side and she takes an age to subside as I pull the Blade from her bloodied chest. As if I am in a trance l let the blood drip from the knife onto the pages of the book, where they sizzle like fat dropped into a frying pan.
An explosion of sound then erupts from deep within the pit, rushing upwards like an express train, like the beginnings of a volcanic eruption. The platform begins to vibrate, shaking uncontrollable, large cracks opening up in its service, spilling rocks into the empty space. The gate is open. I have found my Unholy Grail at last, complete confirmation of my theories! The passageway leading eventually to the Arboreal Orb, the Eternal Eye itself is gaping. Levitating upwards towards the mirror, shaped into that hellish eyeball, I begin to scream. Suspended in the air, caught in the baleful gaze of the looking glass, I look down, as an arachnid arm as thick as a man is long, grabs the body of the young teenager in its claw and drags her into the bottomless abyss.
For a few moments there is complete stillness, a hush, where I hear a background susurration like a distant swarm of locusts, and I stare upwards at the mirror suspended above me. The mirror blinks like a real eye and something clicks in my brain. The long, endless well shaft is reflected in the mirror, reversed, now like a chimney, and I realise in a flash of sickening despair, the horror of my situation, the situation of the whole of humanity. Our world is an emanation, a literal creation, a manufactured universe of the unimaginable entity or entities labelled the Arboreal Orb, the Alpha and Omega of evil. God does not exist and never did; virtue does not exist and never will. My emotions, my feelings of guilt and torment, my pleasure and selfish triumphs are nothing. We are nothing, mere nourishment for the Eternal Eye, that black void, shinning orb of nullity
Saturday, 7 January 2012
Yesterday evening I sat in my single room, while I heard my flat mate, Gary, a fellow student, fooling about with his girlfriend downstairs in the kitchen. A pack of strong larger beside my armchair, the TV flickering hypnotically in the gloom, I zapped through the countless channels, an increasing sense of despair stealing up on me.
By the end of the evening I was comatose, but that’s just how I like it, the nearest non-sensation to oblivion, short of suicide.
“Oi, Rog, we’re going out, see you later and don’t go blind with those porno vids,’ Gary shouts up, followed by the sound of his girlfriend giggling. By the time they came back I was unconscious. At least thankfully I was spared the sound of their humping coming through the thin walls of my bedroom.
It is a miracle I managed to extract myself from my bed, the alarm that I remembered to set the night before, a miracle in itself, reverberating in my skull. Some realisation of my condition must have asserted itself, forcing me to take a grip of myself, to fight the almost unbearable pain burning inside my head, the nausea threatening to overwhelm me and, worst of all, the cloud of desolation that still clung tenaciously.
The thought of serving customers, working as a Saturday assistant at Blakewell’s bookshop along Charing Cross Road in my condition, was unbearable. It would be so much easier to call in sick. But some semblance of rationality told me if I curled up in my misery underneath my bed coverings I would never move, never be able to face life or the living again. I would be unable to pay my way, becoming another statistic in London’s growing homeless problem, a dishevelled heap of human failure.
In hindsight I bitterly wish I had made the call, making a strategic retreat from the world for one day. I would have got over it, probably felt well by the afternoon or the evening. But I didn’t succumb and so found myself on Balham underground station stepping on to the 7.45am train to Leicester Square.
There was plenty of vacant seating to choose from early that Saturday morning and I tried to make myself comfortable, my mind on my inner pain. As the sound of the sliding doors grated on my throbbing head, the lurch forward of the compartment making me retch, I noticed sitting directly opposite, the homeless man I’d seen many times on the Northern line.
He was gaunt, with hardly an ounce of flesh, grimy, patterned with ages of dirt, his clothing made uniform, ragged and shapeless through what must have been years of wear. His hair was long, unkempt and hid his face, though the long strands did not hide his vivid, intense blue eyes.
I could feel the homeless man staring at me as I tried to avoid those eyes by looking at my reflection in the window behind his head. He disturbed me. He seemed to be a living embodiment of my own fate. I felt I was looking at the ghost of my own dead self projected into the past. He represented my own isolation, lack of friends or family, my eventual succumbing to the status of outcast.
I could feel my depression increase like an expanding suffocating balloon. My head felt ready to explode, I knew I was going to be sick and in public too. Then he spoke to me.
“What’s your name boy,” he said in a London accent.
At first I did not reply, I felt the usual mixture of emotions when approached by a beggar, (I automatically assumed he was a beggar) pity, guilt and an awkward irritation.
“Roger,” I said eventually reaching into my pocket and finding a few coins. “Get yourself a cup of tea.”
I knew I sounded patronising and he must have realised I only wanted to give him some change to get him out of my sight. I had decided to get off at the next stop, Charing Cross and walk. I was feeling claustrophobic, stifled by the artificial heat of the Underground on top of everything else.
“I want more then your useless money, boy.” The grime on his face split as he smiled.
The horrible creature was a pervert. Suddenly my stomach could not contain its contents any longer, I retched, bending over, splattering a young woman’s dark shoes and lower stockings with a thick, lumpy yellow and red liquid.
“Jesus, you creep,” she said as she moved away, the rest of the carriage looking on in disgust. Vomit dribbled slowly down my chin.
By the time I had wiped myself with a tattered paper handkerchief fished from my pockets, the train had passed Charing Cross. I stood up, pushing myself through the densely packed passengers to get to the sliding doors. I felt awful, my head swam and I could barely stand up. People grumbled but let me through as they would any pathetic down and out drunkard who had humiliated himself.
Standing on the platform, leaning against the tiled wall to calm myself, I flinched as the tramp on the tube train approached me, his face grinning once more.
“Your in a bad way son, I can help you. Meet me here after you finish whatever you have to do.”
I ignored him and began to walk the brightly lit steps up to the escalators, wrapped in a mist of self pity, cursing myself and all existence.
I had almost forgotten my encounter by midday but my abject humiliation on the tube was still a vivid stain on my memory.
As the day wore on I increasingly felt lighter within myself, my hangover evaporated and the routine of doing the stock-taking lulled me into a state of balance. I even got talking to my attractive co-worker at lunch time, a student of media studies, about my favourite subject, Dostoevsky.
By six o’clock as I walked down the crowded thoroughfare of Charing Cross Road towards Leicester Square station in the fading light, this disposition was vanishing fast. I was due to meet my mother in a week’s time. I had not seen or spoken too her for six months and the thought of trying to wrangle money out of her to pay off my debts while at the same time pretending to be her loving son, was now playing havoc with any truce I had made with my angst.
I was conscious too of being desperate for a drink to escape the implications of another lonely night in my room in front of the TV, which only had the vicious effect of emphasising my encroaching alcoholism, lowering my mood and thus contributing to the craving.
I felt around in my mind for any alternatives to returning to my flat. I could spend the evening in one of the numerous drinking places of Soho but I would be a lone drinker surrounded by noisy crowds and happy couples.
As I looked at the telephone booths plastered with the lurid displays of prostitute’s calling cards, I even thought about seeking solace in emotionless sex, but the quick release provided by a sullen whore would only lead to guilt and shame. Anyway my libido was not strong at the best of times, subsumed by liquor, but above all I had no money.
Like the gravity of a black hole sucking in a doomed spaceship my flat beckoned with its ready supply of Carlsberg lager in the fridge.
I felt his presence before I saw him. The nape of my neck prickled strangely and I turned instinctively. He was right behind me on the packed platform, that disturbing smile fixed into place on his dirtied face.
I was tightly wedged between other travellers and the platform was filling up with more as we all waited patiently for the next train, which according to the display board was due in five minutes. My instinct was to move away, but something rooted me to the spot.
What immediately struck me and must have contributed to my remaining where I stood, was I could not detect any odour coming from his begrimed body. I should have been assailed by the stink of the unwashed, assaulted by the smells of urine and faeces, but I was not.
His rags when looked at closely through the muck and tear of decades were in the style of pre-war working class clothing, pre-first world war that is-a collarless shirt that once must have been white, a torn piece of cloth around his shoulders I could just make out to be the remains of a waistcoat, and ripped baggy trousers.
“So does my offer still stand?”
His pencil thin eyebrows I could just make out through the grime were raised, producing a quizzical expression. He stroked his straggly tangled grey beard with his long thin fingers, ending in overgrown yellowed fingernails.
I did not say a thing but he could tell by my expression I was interested. I was so far gone in my miseries any aid offered I would have accepted gladly. I knew this reject of society was unlikely to offer anything of substance, he probably only wanted some companionship in his desolate existence or money, but my curiosity had been piqued.
“We will have to go to Tottenham Court Road,” he said moving towards the north bound platform. Even though I only had a return ticket to Balham I followed him meekly like a lamb to the slaughter.
On leaving the train after standing in silence in the packed carriage, he directed me off the main exit tunnel through a short side passage to an iron door marked ‘Private Staff Only’ in red letters. It was not locked and he easily shifted the door outwards. He disappeared into the darkness beyond.
I hesitated, I had expected him to leave the tube complex altogether and take me to some grimy alley he called home. Although I had heard of the homeless living in the dank tunnels of the New York subway, I did not realise such a social phenomenon existed in London. Maybe there was a teeming community of outcast, displaced people behind this door. I felt even more apprehensive then before.
It only took me a few seconds to decide. I stepped into the gaping blackness and my companion shut the heavy door enclosing us completely into sightless midnight.
Light flared as he struck a match, throwing our flickering shadows over a tiny landing. A rusty Edwardian spiral staircase, its paint peeling, lead down a brick walled shaft.
We moved downwards silently except for the unsteady creak and rocking of the staircase, my trepidation increasing as I looked at the green mould clustering on the damp streaked walls and breathed in the enfolding aroma of rats urine. Every so often we were plunged into claustrophobic blindness as my guide’s matches fizzled out, but the dancing shadows immediately came to life as he lit another one.
I seriously began to question my own judgement in accepting his offer of help but then it was this or the monotonous despair of my bedroom. At least this was different. I didn’t know such hidden secretive places existed in the Underground and to actually visit one was intriguing.
We reached the bottom and before the match expired, bringing the dark like a fadeout in a film, I saw we had entered a vault-like space with a sloping arched brick ceiling, an uneven stone floor, humped and pitted, and incongruously in the centre a chipped and battered table with a high backed wooden chair.
To the side leaning against the wall was a massive storage cabinet, red with age old rust. There was movement on the right side of the chamber and I noticed a large grey rat scurry underneath the cabinet.
“I am afraid we have run out of matches. I hope you don’t mind but we are going to have to talk in the dark.”
He grabbed my sleeve pulling me into what must be the centre and sat me down on the hard chair. Numbly and without a struggle I complied, only tangenetly observing that this creature must have some means of seeing in the endless night of his sunken habitation.
Panic suddenly gripped me, all craving for drink vanishing in my anxiety to escape this forgotten zone beneath the tube station. I was on the edge of floundering and crying for help even though there was no one to hear my screams.
“Don’t worry son, I am not going to harm you, I just have a proposition for you,” he said, as if he could see my expression of fright.
My terror slackened slightly at these words, enough to stop my fear-induced flight into the pit black darkness. But his speech did not calm me.
From above came a deep rumble, feeling brick dust settle on my head and face as I realised we must be directly below the north bound train tunnel. A spider or some insect that had been dislodged from the roof by the vibration crawled across my scalp and I flicked at it, my skin crawling.
To bring a sense of normality I spoke briefly for the first time in a shaky voice.
“What is this place…have you no light at all …do you live here…and why haven’t the staff evicted you?”
My first spoken sentence to him sounded frightened but aggressive to my ears, like a trapped victim attempting to bargain with its captor. But he answered my questions in his cockney accent.
“This place was a storage depot when the line was first built but now they don’t use it… They don’t evict me because they can’t see me and yes it is where I live but I also have other places in the underground railway. As for light, there is no way I can find candles or lamps, only dropped boxes of matches occasionally, anyway I have no need of them as I can see in the dark.”
This pathetic wreck of a man was mentally ill. My blindness in this abandoned chamber disturbed me but slowly I began to relax and to think through means of escape. The best stratagem was to humour his madness and at some point he would come round to guiding me out, especially as he seemed intent on helping me.
I settled as comfortably in my chair as its rigid structure permitted and began to converse with the invisible stranger. It was unnerving conversing with someone I could not see but he soon took on the burden of most of the talking. Also I could tell he had no interest in me per se. It was not merely a selfless offering of help although he was trying his best to hide the fact.
He could immediately pick me out in a crowd he claimed and I was the only sort of person he was able communicate with. Strangely, and this must have been the delusion of his insanity, happy or contented individuals could not perceive or detect him.
But it was only when he began to dwell on his past and what had brought him to these desperate straits I realised the profound nature of his disengagement with reason.
He said his name was Fowler and was almost two hundred years old. How old exactly he had no clear idea as he was unsure of his own date of birth, but he was born in Lambeth in the Eighteen Thirties. He loosely kept abreast of dates by picking up discarded newspapers.
Employment as a construction worker on the first underground railway, the Metropolitan line, in the Eighteen Sixties had given him some desperately needed income, for his wife and ten children. But the hours and conditions of work were atrocious and as an older man in his thirties he was losing his strength by the day. He understood clearly that soon he would be discarded by his employers and he turned to drink as his only solace, neglecting his family by spending most of his wages on liquor.
He became violent towards his wife and children, especially his youngest son who he used to beat in a drunken rage almost continuously, though he was consumed with remorse and guilt afterwards.
One evening after a particular back breaking twelve hour shift when he thought he would collapse out of sheer exhaustion, he was standing at the bar of his local getting drunk, when a mysterious character made his acquaintance. The gentleman was very cultured and well dressed, an unusual patron in the sorts of public houses Fowler used to frequent.
The man proclaimed himself to be an alchemist, who had discovered through rigorous experimentation the secret of everlasting life. He told Fowler after a thousand years of existence he was bored and satiated with living. He desired to depart this material world and go on to a higher plane. He wanted to die. But to do this he needed a willing volunteer to exchange his immortal life.
He could guess Fowler was full of the woes of the world and immortality would be an escape. The poor would be able to run away from his ties, his problems; all he needed to do was perform a quick ritual and he would live forever.
The bargain did come at a heavy price though. This was the inability to leave the confines of London and to communicate with the majority of the human race.
Fowler was incredulous about this proposal but he was so far gone in his dejection he was willing to accept anything. There was nothing to fear really; if the man was insanely deluded or a charlatan then his everyday problems had not magically gone away. He was not going to offer this so-called alchemist money for his help; he had no money to give.
He accepted forthwith and was shown to a small back room, where a short ritual was performed.
As it was late and he was terribly drunk, he spent the night curled up in a corner of the room, unable to sleep. The next day, the alchemist having vanished, he decided to go to work, as he did not feel particularly immortal, although weirdly, he felt no lethargy or effect from his drinking the night before.
At work he was ignored by most of his colleagues, which did not unduly disturb him as he was disliked by most of his work mates. But a small majority of the men he could not distinguish clearly. They were wavering indistinct blobs, which he could clearly hear talking, but when approached, did not acknowledge him as if he were not present or visible.
At first he put this down to the delayed action of the drink but around late afternoon with hundreds of other ‘navvies’ shovelling earth around him and the sounds of hammering, clatter and the general noise of a construction site making conversation impossible, he realised he was feeling no weariness, hunger or thirst, not even an urge for alcohol. Fowler could continue labouring forever if he so wanted without any need for rest. He began to take the mysterious transaction of last night far more seriously.
Then the disaster happened. The northern wall of the deep trench dug into the Euston Road collapsed burying twenty or more men including Fowler under tons of wooden scaffolding and earth.
In the sickening enclosed darkness he could not move. He was encased like a fly in black amber. He felt no pain but his mind fed grotesquely on the memory of the alchemist’s ritual the night before, almost driving him insane with fear. He cried, yelled and screamed for death internally in his head, for any form of release or salvation. But none came.
For what seemed like an eternity, he remained in this condition of tormenting limbo, but eventually light like the blaze of God’s redemption released him from what he believed would be his eternal prison. The engineers had redug the trench where the first line of the Underground railway was to be laid, unknowingly freeing the first ghost of the tube system.
His relief was beyond reckoning but it was short lived. Fowler was still confined, he was unable to exit the trench and he remembered the words vividly of the magic man who had given him the ‘gift’ of immortal life.
As the years went by the complex of tunnels and passageways of the Underground expanded out to encompass the whole of London. At various semi-unknown nodal points it connected with the sewer networks and other subterranean engineering endeavours, thus forming a complete hidden world for Fowler to explore and make his home in; a twisted maze of black vaults and man-made catacombs as mysterious and convoluted as any natural caving system. But, for some occult cause that remained a mystery, the man who had found immortal life was confined to this dark realm.
He was ideally adapted to the condition of lightlessness and gloom, as the ‘gift’ of immortality had also given him the ability to see in the dark. He had no urges for food, drink or sex and the need for sleep or rest was gone for good. So after his first frustrated emotion of entrapment in the newly built Metropolitan line, came one of freedom from all responsibilities. Fowler had no problems, no concerns or stresses; an isolated human who could observe his stygian surroundings without the fear of death.
But about fifty years since the fateful agreement with the warlock, after the novelty of his situation had worn off, a monstrous ennui began to set in, complemented by horrific pangs of loneliness and utter separateness. The few people he managed to communicate with were so wrapped up in themselves and in their own melancholic reveries the conversations did not last long.
The walls of his city-sized prison were closing in on him once more. He wanted escape, to breathe real air, to feel sunshine on his face, and to hear birdsong. He wanted above all else human companionship, someone special he felt responsible for, like his wife.
Fowler began to understand that as these common pleasures shared by nearly all of humanity were shut from him forever, he would prefer to die.
But again the words of the alchemist returned to him. If he was able to find another individual willing to become immortal with all the restrictions this entailed, then he would be released.
The seemingly endless task of finding the person then began, with all of its incumbent rejection, dead-ends and the resultant anguish, right up to this present moment.
“There you have it,” Fowler continued, “amazing isn’t it? But it’s all true, every word of it. And I can solve all your worries, every bloody one of them! Just by saying yes you will live forever. You can’t get a better bargain then that. So come on mate, give me your consent and hey presto, immortality!”
At this point I had to stifle a laugh. How ridiculous and pathetic he sounded, how lost he must be in his own delusional fancies. Even if what he was claiming had any resemblance to reality, who in their right mind would want immortality with those conditions. But I now could see a way of humouring him, which would enable me to get out of this dungeon.
“I’ll accept your offer,” I said. “But only if you agree to lead me out of here.”
There was a deep silence only broken by another loud vibration of a passing train.
“Yeah,” he said after the sound died down, “but you won’t want my help, you’ll be able to see in the dark like me. Anyway I won’t be around no more.”
Another silence and then very fast and rapidly, almost exultantly I thought, he spoke again.
“Of course I will lead you out, mate, of course, of course, just say you agree to my bargain. Just say it!”
I quickly and automatically agreed.
Footfalls to my left told me he was walking almost running towards the rusty iron cabinet behind me, then a screech of metal as its doors were flung open and a ruffling sound emanated from within, as if Fowler was searching for something.
There was the noise of fast returning footsteps and then very suddenly my left wrist was violently grasped and my palm forced upwards, at the same time something heavy fell on the table in front of me. I had no time to struggle before an excruciating pain hit me through the whole of my arm, as a very sharp object plunged itself into my upraised hand.
I wailed in agony and tried to pull myself away but his grip was vice like. I kicked out savagely, yelling obscenities, as the knife or whatever it was, was slowly, too slowly, drawn out of my palm. My weakening hand was moved back facing downwards and I felt my blood oozing out of what must be a gaping wound.
Without any warning Fowler’s hold on my wrist was loosened and I stumbled away. Clutching my bleeding hand as I haltingly moved backwards, my back eventually hit the hard wall. In all that short time as I shouted curses, threatening him with the police, I slumped to the floor, curling myself into a protective foetal position, tears of pain and fear flowing down my cheeks. But my shouts of terrified rage soon faded from my lips and turned to soft moans.
I had turned my head half expecting to be attacked by the demented vagrant, readying myself for another violent assault, my adrenaline pumping, when I was taken completely by surprise as I opened my eyes. I could see.
The impenetrable darkness had dissipated, leaving a red tinged twilight, allowing me to view clearly all objects in my field of vision. I could find no visible source of this ghostly light, seemingly coming from the reddish brickwork.
But it was the unbelievably uncanny and monstrous sight above the old table which fixed my staring eyes and forced an uncontrollable gasp of terror from my lips.
Drifting to and fro as if in a gentle breeze, swinging like a hanged man on the end of a tight nose, suspended five or six feet from the floor without any support, was the nude figure of Fowler. His whole frame was convulsed by spasms, as if a powerful electric current was pouring unstoppably into his body, his arms and legs tossing themselves in all directions like a rag doll being shaken by a giant. In the grip of an evil ecstasy, his face was turned into an ugly mask of unbelievable and unimaginable torment.
I watched in appalled fascination as his flesh began to peel smoothly and cleanly away, revealing the veins and musculature beneath until he resembled an anatomist’s dummy.
Then those too faded to invisibility exposing the next layer of pulsing bodily organs, as if he was performing the ultimate in intimate striptease. Within minutes, all that was left was his yellowish skeleton, shaking with an awful spasticity and then it too went, disappearing into whatever maw of hell or ‘higher plane of reality’ that was methodically and neatly eating him up.
But it was his words, echoing abysmally around the sunken cellar…I had never heard such speech of unremitting hopelessness, despair and abject horror. It was the final utterance of the dammed soul before facing the infinity of the black pit.
“Help me, I don’t want this, take me back, I have made a mistake, I will accept anything, God have mercy on my soul, save me from the Staring Eye, keep away, I repent of everything, just give me another chance, the Eye, the Eye, it stares, get away, get away, no please, the Eye…”
These desperate wails drilled themselves into my startled mind and I will never forget them. Even after Fowler’s carcass had gone for good they still reverberated, boring themselves ever deeper into my brain. I tried to shut them out by clasping my hands tightly over my ears but somehow they managed to gain egress. But eventually the harangue of preternatural torture came to an end, not suddenly but like a record which fades at its end.
Standing up, still shaking, I moved aghast and bewildered to the table.
Certain disturbing facts began to intrude themselves into my addled consciousness. I knew first of all there was no visible source of light because the illumination was internal, created inside me. Incredibly I had acquired the ability to see in the dark. The implications of this were so immense my mind refused to deal with it, locking it into a separate compartment that would only burst through, along with all the other realities of my situation, years afterwards.
I also comprehended I felt no pain from the wound in my hand. Bringing my palm in line with my sight I saw there was no gaping slash dripping with blood, only a faint scar that was even then disappearing as I looked.
Reaching the table, almost tripping over the discarded heap of rags, I picked up the dagger laying on its scratched surface. This must be the weapon which Fowler stabbed me with and it was a horrendous artefact.
At least a foot in length, the blade was almost luminous with the intensity of its steel. The sharpness of its point must have been capable of cutting through thick hide. I understood with another formidable shock to my senses, that when Fowler attacked with such force, the blade would have gone right through my hand to the other side. I should right now be writhing in agony, at risk of dying because of loss of blood.
On the hilt were hellish demonic figures, intricately wrought by a master craftsman of diabolical skill, malformed, tentacled, alien and non-human. These shapes seemed to be possessed of a geometry and proportion not of this sphere of existence. All yawning orifices, their heads consisting of hundreds of insectiod eyes, their bodies bulbous, fungus-like and misshapen, flinging out enwrapping, coiled suckered arms, and each monstrosity was eating another or copulating in an unholy ravenous orgy.
A book on the table, small in size, time-worn, a grimoire or black magic manual, opened to its middle section, drew my attention from the knife.
This was where my pouring blood was directed by Fowler when he had stabbed me. The two pages were stained red with what seemed like aeons of free-flowing life juices, but these marks were unable to obscure the blasphemous picture covering both pages.
A flayed, gaping, vagina like fleshy mouth or opening, surrounded by outlandish writing, was made, purely by the illusion of artifice, by the artist’s unusual drawing talent, to pulsate and writhe in a carnally obscene fashion. I was almost forced to look into its centre by its power, like the effect of a sucking vortex; and there amongst the glutinous folds and layers of skin of the alien entity, was an eye, a staring, hateful, malevolent eye. Within its black pupils was the tiny but moving face of Fowler, shrieking silently as if everything evil in the universe were slowly eating his mind.
It is silent now, only the scurrying mice down below the platform, between the tracks and discarded rubbish, making a sound. The strip lighting has been turned off but it has no consequence for I can see everything in a red tinged ambience. Natural day and night will have no meaning, except for the rhythms and day to day patterns of the Underground.
Of course it is always night in the dark labyrinthine tunnels of the underground system, lit only by the bright windows of the speeding trains, filled with their clanking rushing noise and the flickering illumination of the torches of the tube workers after midnight; rationalised in most people’s heads by the deceptive straight lines of the famous London Underground map stuck on the walls and at the back of neat A to Z’s.
I am startled by the wavering electric torches of three rail workers as they move along the platform from the station exit. They clamber down into the rail pit and retreat into the empty hole of the tunnel, talking loudly and guffawing at some lewd joke.
They have no awareness of me as I sit benumbed on the plastic seating, but the worker with a haggard face and one trembling hand glances my way. Maybe he can detect an indistinct shape or bulk or a collection of shadows emphasised by the radiance of their lamps. If so it is so inconsequential he does not bring it to the attention of his colleagues and they pass away into the darkness.
There is no escape from my new world. I have tried. My first action was to climb on board the train departing for Balham, horrified that, except for a few, I was unable to clearly focus on any of the passengers. They were a blur, like criminal suspects on TV, digitally blanked out.
I moved up the escalators to the surface. I got to the ticket barriers. I had my ticket in my hand ready to slot it into the mechanism, but some unseen field of force prevented me from going any further. I pushed, threw myself physically at this unseen wall, began to hit at it, kick violently with my feet, but I could not pass.
I began to moan, shout, then I screamed, wailed, throwing myself around like a madman, half hoping some one would restrain me, call the station manager or the police, to forcefully get me evicted, but the few passers-by ignored me as if I was not there. I tried to grab hold of the labels of a ticket inspector, to shake him into taking notice of my plight, but I passed right through him as if he did not exist.
Eventually the fits of panic and frustration ebbed away and the emotionless indifference of my present condition exerted itself. For some unknown reason I travelled back to Tottenham Court Road where I slumped without feeling on the row of seats.
My problems and concerns blighting me above ground are no more. I do not feel sleepy or tired and I never will. I am immortal: I need not fear old age, illness, disease or death ever again.
This is my world now, always visible, an enclosed secret domain, nearly eight hundred miles of it. The lost and abandoned tube stations, unlit crypts of forgotten days, containing the relics of past advertisements and scrawled graffiti are there to be found. I have no companions except for the scuttling colonies of rats and possibly other ghosts or the lost souls of a subterranean land.
A strange excitement is developing inside, intruding itself into my blank state; an enthusiasm to explore the synthetic realm of the underground labyrinth. True it is a confined space, but as twisting and convoluted as the most unreachable cave systems in the world. Who knows what unfathomable secrets reside down here. I have two already, the primordial and devilish book nestled in my pocket and the evilly carved dagger. I cannot read the bizarre lettering in the grimoire but I can find someone who can, another outsider who will be able to decipher its diabolic message.
I scramble down onto the rail tracks and walk slowly towards the mouth of the tunnel, an entrance to an unexplored domain, a country of mysteries. One thought haunts me as I make the first step; what depths of seclusion, companionless isolation and lonely desperation forced Fowler to make that abominable bargain, with such an unthinkably dreadful price for his soul?
I shudder and disappear into the shadows...