My idea to publish, on my blog, my collection of a hundred short-short horror stories hasn't exactly gone down a storm, at least according to my blog statistics. So I might speed the process up by publishing them as triple bills. (I like that idea.)
Of course, if they continue to die a death, I might just kill them off anyway-- so to speak.
But not before Halloween!
I don't regret the experiment, though. When I started this blog, it was with reservations about the whole format of a blog. Blogging seemed awfully with-it and Millennial and tuned-in, and everything that a backward-looking, contrarian fogey like myself should abhor. (I didn't get a mobile phone until 2004, and I'm awfully proud of that.)
But if even a prize harrumpher like Peter Hitchens can be an enthusiastic blogger, then it must be OK, and not just the territory of trendies, right?
Besides, I really relish the freedom of blogging. Like Chesterton, I don't believe there is such a thing as a different subject. It's true that this can be a recipe for self-indulgence, but I prefer the danger of self-indulgence to the strait-jacket of dreary formality.
So I am entirely unapologetic about publishing horror stories on a blog called Irish Papist.
So, here are the three latest offerings...cue the scary music, and the dimmed lights...
Never Listen to Them
Reggie Hollingsworth paced through the winding corridors of Bleakley Abbey. The sound of his boots echoed through the three-hundred-year-old house, making him feel ten times his true size
He was a rather short man in his early forties. But he was built like a rugby player, with broad shoulders and muscle-padded limbs. He wore a dark grey suit, crumpled, with a bright red shirt beneath it. His tousled hair had grown to his shoulders, and his eyes were wild with fatigue. He held a machete in his right hand. It glistened in the early morning sunlight that streamed through the windows of Bleakley Abbey.
He was confused. Very confused.
The little village of Kesworth had been buzzing with the news. James Darley, the millionaire owner of Bleakley Abbey, had sacked all his servants, giving them enormous settlements in lieu of notice. Kesworth had become a richer community overnight.
And Reggie Hollingsworth walked towards his final target unimpeded. Bleakley Abbey was deserted for the first time in three centuries.
All but deserted. Somewhere in these rooms, the last of the Five Hundred was waiting for him
Headphones were tucked in Reggie’s earholes. A walkman was strapped to his chest with cloth bands. Glenn Miller’s big band were putting all their heart into Moonlight Serenade. Never listen to them. That was the Professor’s golden rule. Listen to them, and you’re dead.
That was something few people knew about vampires. They were hypnotic. At least, the Great Vampires were, the Five Hundred. The ancient ones who carried the Satanic germ of vampirism, who not only drank blood but could convert men and women into the foulest creatures the world had ever seen.
The Professor had begun the work many decades ago, spending as much time delving through obscure archives as he spent hunting down the Undead. He had discovered the identities of the Five Hundred— there were, in fact, closer to six hundred of them—and dispatched almost two hundred of them himself. Too old for the task now, he had chosen Reggie as his successor.
Many had lost their lives in the quest to destroy the Fathers of Vampirism. First the Professors’ friends and helpers, and after that, Reggies’ own. They were all gone now; Roger Blakely, Sanjeev Naithani, Polly “Tiffin” Summers, Duncan Chambers, Ginger Jones. Even Wickets, Reggie’s faithful hound, had paid the ultimate price.
They had fallen in Transylvania, in Iceland, in Alaska. They had fallen in Pakistan and Ghana and Samoa. They had taken the hunt for the Five Hundred to the four quarters of the Earth, but it ended here, in England, on a bright morning in February.
“This one is for you, mates”, Reggie whispered. “This one is for you.”
The end, when it came, was so easy that Reggie felt a pang of disappointment. He found Darley sitting in the library, the curtains drawn. He was braced for a titanic battle—the last Vampiric Father on earth, struggling for the survival of his kind—but there was no resistance. He crept up behind Darley and beheaded him with one clean sweep of his machete.
It was only then he saw Henderson, Darley’s butler, standing by the window. Reggie recognised him from the file—comprehensive as always—- that the Professor had drawn up.
Henderson was staring at him with volcanic hatred. Reggie wasn’t surprised. The human servants of vampires were as fanatically loyal as they were loathsome. He plucked the earphones from his ears with one hand, and with the other, he raised the bloody machete once more. He stepped towards Henderson.
“Are you going to kill me?”, asked Henderson, curling his lip. He was a middle-aged man, strikingly handsome.
“Too bloody right”, said Reggie. “Lord Haw-Haw was nothing compared to people like you.”
Henderson shrugged magisterially. “Think what you will, Mr. Hollingsworth”, the butler said. “The truth is that you have done the greater disservice to mankind.”
“I don’t want to hear your twisted logic”, said Reggie, stepping closer.
Henderson gave him a smile of insufferable superiority. “The Professor taught you well, didn’t he?”, he asked. “Whatever you do, never listen to them. You might just hear the truth.”
“What the hell are you babbling about, you vermin?”, asked Reggie.
Again, that smug smile. Now it was an out-and-out sneer. “Haven’t you ever wondered why vampires never simply overran mankind, Hollingsworth? You must have. The truth is that, through countless centuries, the Undead have killed more of each other than men ever killed. The two great Vampire clans, the Red and White, have fought a ruthless war since before the dawn of history. But today that war ended. The field has been cleared.”
Reggie lowered the machete slowly. His face was without expression.
“Ask yourself, Hollingsworth”, said Henderson, folding his arms. “Why have you never seen The Professor in sunlight?”
The Girl by the Road
Don had lost his way when he saw the girl.
She was ambling along the side of the road, flicking at the shrubbery with a long thin branch. It was a balmy day, and she wore a light, gaily-coloured dress. Her black hair was tied up and he could see her sunburn from twenty feet away. She was maybe fourteen or fifteen.
He pulled up a little ahead of her, and rolled down the window.
She walked towards him readily, curiously. She was just about pretty, and she had one of the most freckled faces he’d ever seen. A silver pendant around her neck told the world her name was Marie.
“Am I on the right road to Orna?”, he asked.
She pulled a face, and said: “Yeah, this is the way to Orna. But why would you want to go there?”
“My wife grew up there”, he said. Jasmine was Don’s fianceé, not his wife, but he always found it difficult to use the word fianceé.
“And?”, said the girl, staring at him.
“It’s a long story,” he said, a little wearily. He had driven all the way from Dublin. “But there’s a little craftshop there…”
The girl rolled her eyes. “Gaelic Gifts”, she said. “It’s nothing but trash.”
“People get sentimental”, said Don, with a patient smile. “My wife often talks about it. She said it makes its own special kind of St. Brigid’s crosses…”
“Yeah, yeah”, said the girl. “If you’re willing to fork out twenty quid for a little straw cross. Is that your wife?”
She was pointing towards a small framed photograph that sat on the dashboard. Don nodded, proudly.
“Pretty”, said the girl, not very enthusiastically. “Does she work in Dublin?”
“Yeah”, said Don, thinking the question strange. “She’s a solicitor, actually.”
The girl’s eyes widened. “A solicitor in Dublin…” she said, in a sing-song, dreamy voice. “That’s what I’d like to be. In Dublin, or in London. Or in New York. Somewhere far away from this crummy place.”
“Jasmine used to think it was crummy”, said Don. “She thinks differently now.”
The girl wrinkled her nose. “That won’t happen to me.”
There was silence for a moment, filled only with the hum of distant traffic.
“Do you want me to drive you the rest of the way?”, asked Don.
“Nah”, said the girl, looking down at her sandalled feet. “You go ahead and buy your overpriced gift. I’m sure Jasmine will love it.” Her voice was sardonic.
“OK, then”, siad Don, lowering the window. “Thanks, Marie.”
Within a few minutes, he was driving through the market square of Orna, with its stone cross and its faded shop awnings. It was surprisingly busy. He spotted Gaelic Gifts within a few moments, and pulled up outside.
Inside, it was just as he’d expected it would be. Pleasantly cluttered, pleasantly ramshackle, pleasantly dusty. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED announced a hanging sign in old Gaelic script.
Behind the counter, a gaunt man with a few tufts of grey hair left on his skull smiled at Don. “Fine morning, sir”, he said. He spoke slowly, doubtless used to tourists with learner’s English.
“Certainly is”, said Don. “I, um, I hear that you make your own Bridget’s Crosses”.
“Aye”, said the man, promptly, as if he was used to the request. He disappeared through an open door behind him, through which Don could see an even more cluttered room.
While the shopkeeper was gone, he looked around. Many of the gifts in the shop were kitsch, doubtless made in Taiwan or China, but there was plenty of good stuff too. Don’s eyes fell on a ship in a bottle that stood on a shelf behind the counter. He had rarely seen so perfect a specimen.
“That ship—“ he began, when the shopkeeper emerged, clutching a box of St. Bridget’s Crosses.
“Not for sale”, said the shopkeeper, not gruffly, but as though he was used to telling people. “My daughter made it.”
“She’s very talented”, said Don.
“She was very talented”, said the old man, with a grim smile. “She died twenty years ago. Knocked down on the road a few miles from here.”
Don’s heart began to beat faster. It was ridiculous, but he couldn’t help it. “Was her name Marie?”, he asked, a little self-consciously.
The shopkeeper gave him a puzzled, slightly suspicious look. “No”, he said. “No, her name was Jasmine.”
The Great Lie
“This is going to sound like envy—“ began Matt Dickson.
“My dear Matt”, said Polly Tucker, who already seemed a little bit tipsy. “Minerva night is made for envy, and backbiting, and belittlement, and dirty rumours. You go way back with Duffy, don’t you? You must know every skeleton in the cupboard and every...what’s in the attic?”
“Bats?”, suggested old Jim Dodd, affably. “Bats in the attic?”
“Well, you know what I mean”, said Polly Tucker, waving her hand dismissively. “All the scandal.”
“There’s no point circulating scandal about Harry Black”, said Matt, looking towards the podium where his former colleague would soon be standing. “He does that himself. He delights in it.”
“Then you must put it about that he’s actually a very harmless creature, who’s tucked up with his Collected Bertrand Russell and a cup of cocoa by half-ten every night”, said Polly, giving Matt a soft punch in the arm.
“And one or two of his research students”, said Matt, offering Polly another glass of wine from a passing tray. “Usually of different sexes.”
“You’re a puritan at heart, aren’t you Matt? Cheers, by the way. Oh, here’s the great man!”
There was a ripple of applause through the vaulted great hall of St. George’s College, and a tall, thin man stood at the podium. Cameras flashed as the applause subsided into murmurs.
Matt Dickson forced himself to smile. He hated Harry Black. It wasn’t just envy. It was the bitterest, most lacerating jealousy. They had been the two heavyweights of the University of Stonefield’s philosophy department, taking their debates on free will and determinism from staff rooms to pubs to the Hobbes Society’s organized debates.
That was twenty years ago, and the folklore of the Stonefield philosophy department still insisted that Matt had got the better of Harry Black in every debate. But here he was, accepting the coveted Minerva Award for lifetime achievement in the humanities. And Matt wasn’t even the head of philosophy at Stonefield.
So he forced himself to smile, and listen to Harry’s speech on the set topic, which was the same for every Minerva Award winner: What I Have Learned.
* * *
Harry Black walked up to the microphone, waved at one or two people in the audience, and waited for the murmuring to die down. Then, in his Scottish accent, he asked; “What have I learned?”
He smiled, and the audience giggled. He was the sort of person who could make others laugh just by smiling. “The short answer is, nothing. But you didn’t get into a tux for a short answer, did you? So I’ll give you the padded-out version.
“As an undergraduate, I learned that Wittgenstein sat in the front row of the cinema and read crime novels. I learned that Wagner warned Nietzsche against the perils of excessive masturbation. I learned that Michael Foucault once attended a David Bowie concert. I learned some duller stuff that hasn’t really stuck with me.
“As an academic-- or even, God forbid, a philosopher-- I learned that all my writings, with all their subtleties and complications, would inevitably be boiled down into one claim: There is no such thing as free will.
"I guess it’s not such a bad fate. There was a boy in my school who announced, with terrific gusto, Hitler wasn’t German, he was Austrian, in our very first history class. For six years that insight was thrown back at him every day. I wouldn’t be surprised if he still hears it. So I’m trying to be philosophical about the soundbite that sums up my career.”
By now, spontaneous waves of laughter were passing through the audience, and even old Jim Dodd was grinning his rubbery grin. Matt looked at Polly. She was gazing up at the podium with the stare of adoration that he had seen in so many female eyes, when they were directed at Harry Black. Matt had been entertaining hopes of clicking with her himself. How could he help hating Harry Black?
* * * *
“I bet you’re pretty happy today”, said Polly Tucker, laying her head against Harry Black’s bare chest.
“Purring, my dear”, said Harry Black’s lips. “Purring.” His fingers were her hay-coloured hair.
But that wasn’t what Harry Black was thinking.
Harry Black’s mind was screaming, screaming to be let out. Awards, honours, women, homage...what did it all mean, when it was essentially happening to somebody else? What was he, but a captive of the weird force that had taken command of his body since the very first lecture he gave on free will?
Nobody knew it—- how could they?—- but Harry Black’s consciousness, for the last two decades or so, had been a captive on a runaway train.
What have I learned?, though Harry, bitterly, as his fingers, impelled by some outside force, ran along Polly Tucker’s cheek. I’ve learned that the Devil has a sick sense of humour.