It's time for another triple-bill of my Hundred Nightmares! (What are these Hundred Nightmares, new readers might ask? Read this.)
A warning before you enter, oh gentle reader-- in writing these hundred stories, I tried to represent as many sub-genres of horror and scary tale as possible. One of these three stories is an example of that humblest and least pretentious of sub-genres, gross-out horror. But I'm not going to tell you which one it is. Heee Heeee.
Nightmare Seventeen: Campfire Tales
"...And when they came for her the next morning”, said Wayne, looking around at the ring of attentive faces, “she was mumbling the same word to herself over and over, high-heels, high-heels, high-heels, and her hair was white!”.
For a few moments, the only sound was the moaning of the wind and the crackling of the campfire. Then Shane Lawless said: “No way.”
“Completely true”, said Wayne, his chubby face solemn in the orange glow. “My sister’s friend saw it”.
“Your sister?”, asked Louise Atkinson, leaning a little forward. Her arms were wrapped around each other, hands on elbows. Despite the fire, and the fact that it was late May, the night was chilly.
“Yeah”, said Wayne, defensively. “Cora.”
“I never knew you had a sister”, said Louise. Her voice trembled a little. But then, all of their voices sounded a little strange tonight. Ever since the ghost-stories had begun. “What does she look like? How old is she?”
Wayne shrugged. “She has glasses. And she’s kind of small. Why do you want to know?”
“Girls love to hear about other girls”, said Dermot, who was sitting cross-legged, leaning against his own backpack. He was the youngest there, but nobody ever thought of him as the youngest. He had skipped a year in school. “Just like parents like to know about other parents. That’s the main reason they go to parent-teacher meetings.”
“You’ve got it all worked it out, haven’t you?”, asked Orla Costello, laughing. Orla was the oldest person there, and one of three Club Columba supervisors. She was twenty-three, and in her last year of teacher training. A few tufts of her amber-coloured hair jutted out from the brim of her baseball cap. Almost all the boys had a crush on her, and Louise and Mary—- the only two girls amongst the kids-— idolised her.
The other two supervisors—- who were no fun at all-— were asleep in their tents. But Orla had stayed up, telling them stories from her own camping trips as a kid, and toasting buns on a long fork by the fire. They hadn’t got any marshmallows.
“Enough of all that stuff”, said Philip, his voice booming in the mountain terrain. He seemed to be permanently set to full volume. “More ghost stories!”
“I don’t know”, said Orla, frowning. “We have to remember that you’re children. What if you have nightmares?”
“Oh, come on!”, cried Philip, indignantly.
“I think we need a vote”, said Orla, earnestly. “Anyone votes no, we stop.” There was a chorus of protests at this, but she shook her head stubbornly. “No, this is final. This is final. Show of hands. Everybody who wants to keep telling ghost stories, hands up.”
Every single hand shot up immediately. As soon as she saw it, a dazzling smile crossed Orla’s face, and her eyes lit with laughter. She had been playing with them all along. The kids howled with gleeful indignation.
“OK, OK, OK,” Orla shouted, raising their hands. “I got one. I got one. This will give you nightmares. Shuddupa your face and let me tell it.”
The campfire circle grew quiet again, and Orla began, her voice low now.
“You know Three Castles Wanderers, right? The soccer club? Course you do. Well, did you know that the number eleven in their under-sixteens side hasn’t scored a goal in the last twelve years? Doesn’t matter who wears that shirt. They won’t score.”
“What happened?”, asked Laura Craig, eagerly. Of course something had happened.
“I remember what happened”, said Orla, her eyes widening for emphasis. “I was thirteen at the time. They were playing in the final of the Viking Cup— against Ballymun United— and the number eleven had turned fifteen the day before. He’d had a big party and stuffed himself. Then going out to play a big football match...well, he had a heart attack and collapsed. True story.”
The silence was even deeper this time. The night seemed colder, too.
“I’ve got one”, said Ray Cooke. “There’s these two old sisters living together, right, and they don’t get on. One of them buys a dog…”
“Hey, Dermot”, Orla cut in, anxiously, “are you OK?”
“Keep telling ghost stories,” said Dermot, in a hoarse voice. “For God’s sake, keep telling ghost stories. And don’t look around.”
They all looked around. They saw them.
It took a few moments, but once your eyes had picked them out, it was impossible not to see them.
They were only yards away, shimmering, will-o-the-wisp figures hovering closer all the time.
“They stopped ”, said Dermot. “They were standing still when Orla told her story; and then they stopped when Ray started his. Hey, have you heard...have you heard about the postman on Roundtower Road...”
The ghosts halted their slow advance. They’re just like anyone else, thought Orla. Ghosts like to hear about other ghosts.
It was five hours till dawn.
Nightmare Eighteen: A Few Words
“How can you stand up there and talk to all these people?”, whispered the woman sitting beside Jasper.
Jasper grinned mischievously, reached out, took her hand, and squeezed it. “Because I get paid for it, Millie, my dear,” he said. “Very handsomely.”
“Well, you deserve every penny”, said Millie, a little flushed. She was a pretty woman in her mid-twenties, the daughter of the Five Lamps Foundation’s founder. “The thought of standing there, with all these people expecting you to entertain them...their eyes burrowing into you…”
“...Is one of the greatest thrills a man can experience”, said Jasper, leaning forward, conspiratorially. “There are only two thrills comparable to it. One of them is listening to the Gregorian chant in St. Martin’s Cathedral when the morning sunlight is flooding through the great stained glass windows.”
“And what’s the second?”, asked Millie, wide-eyed.
“Nothing I could describe out loud to a refined lady like yourself.”
Millie flushed a deeper red and laughed nervously. “Well, I salute you”, she said, drawing her hand back from Jasper’s, and raising her wine glass. “It’s a wonderful gift...”
“Not a gift, my dear”, said Jasper, shaking his head briskly. “I didn’t get many gifts in my life. There was no Five Lamps Foundation to give me a bump up. I wasn’t born with the ability to hold an audience spellbound. In fact, I began to practice public speaking after drying up completely at a job interview.”
“Really?”, asked Millie, her eyebrows raised.
“Indeed”, said Jasper. “I was twenty-three and applying for my first teaching job. I was by far the best qualified candidate, but I just froze when confronted with those sour-faced termagants on the interview board. Well, it turned out to be a good thing in the end. I became press officer for Carter Systems the next day, and the rest—- as you know—- is somewhere between legend and history.”
Millie was opening her mouth to reply when her father, at the head of the table, stood up and began to tap on his wineglass with a spoon.
“Is that the silver spoon you had in your mouth when you were born?”, Jasper asked Millie, in a whisper. She giggled.
“Our speaker tonight”, said Charles Charlton—- a tall, bald man who didn’t at all resemble his daughter—- “requires no introduction amongst cultured and informed members of society. But, since this is the board meeting of the Five Lamps Foundation—- some of whom are barely as sophisticated as their President—- I’ll do my best.”
Laughter rippled around the table, but Jasper sighed and whispered: “Lame, lame, lame.”
“He’s perhaps best known for "Vintage Jasper", his wine column in the Alderman. He has also written a bestselling book of business anecdotes, a biography of the notorious rake and forger Sherman Simmons, and an A to Z of hoaxes. He is to only person to have been forcibly ejected from both the Brandenburg and Hollingsworth hotels. He is a breeder of King Charles spaniels, a perfume connoisseur, the owner of a lady’s fashion shop in West London, and a founder member of the Old Scoundrel’s Society. Please welcome Jasper Merridew.”
Jasper stood up, and lifted his hands in the air, waiting for the applause to die.
“I must say”, he began, when it had dwindled sufficienty, “your distinguished President does me an injustice. I have been thrown out of the Brandenburg, the Hollingsworth, and the Stapleton. But we’ll let him away with that.”
There was general laughter at this. Jasper stood there, his hands tucked in his pockets, a jaunty smile on his lips, waiting to resume.
When the laughter had died, he was still standing in the same pose, still looking from face to face.
Slowly, though, the jaunty smile faded from his features. It was replaced, first by a troubled frown, and then by a wide-eyed stare of what could only be considered horror.
Murmurs ran around the table. Some people were grinning knowingly, assuming that Jasper was playing some elaborate joke.
But the silence stretched, and stretched, and stretched, until nobody in the room was smiling.
Millie's father was rising to his feet again, a look of consternation on his face, when Jasper finally spoke.
“Don’t you all hear it?”, he asked, taking a step backwards, his voice hoarse and low. “Don’t you hear...the silence?”
There was silence now; absolute silence.
“We try to fill it!”, said Jasper, his voice rising now. He had taken his hands from his pockets and was waving them in the air. “With music! And noise! And chatter, endless chatter, chatter about nothing! We spend all our lives pushing it away, but it’s always there, waiting for us, like a bird of prey that only has to wait us out! Can’t you hear how horrible it is, how inevitable? Don’t you all realise that nothing can ever keep it back?”
The last words were a shout. Already Jasper was being pulled back into his seat by black-suited figures.
But Millie-- who always found herself grasping for things to say-- thought she did really hear it for the first time. The silence.
She lay awake all that night, listening to the tapping of the radiator, realising that she would always be aware of it now.
It was like a limitless ocean of icy waters, trickling in through every chink and runnel, easily overpowering all of life’s defences. It was there even in the noisiest disco, in the the most frantic crowd, in the the most urgent of lovers’ whispers.
One day—- sooner than expected, perhaps-— the Earth would be a barren rock in the black wastes of space. But already, all of man’s efforts were bent on keeping that enormous silence at bay one moment longer.
But it was always there. Waiting.
Nightmare Nineteen: It Just Came Out
Suzie was chopping onions when it happened. Terry was coming in a couple of hours, and she was making steak. It was his favourite.
She’d been feeling bad all day. First, there was the news about the Israeli athletes held hostage at the Olympics—- how could anyone do such things?—- and then Stephen Cooke had fainted during the morning lessons.
All that would be bad enough, but she had been feeling nauseous, on and off, all day long. Nauseous, and congested. Suzie hardly ever felt unwell, so the slightest sickness made her anxious.
I’ll go to the doctor tomorrow if I still feel like this, she promised herself. She wiped her eye. The onions were making her well up.
She realised she had been humming “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper—- what a stupid song!—- and laughed at herself. What kind of song was that for a teacher to be humming?
And suddenly, there was an agonising pain in her throat, as though something was surging upwards through it. Something big.
Suzie tried to scream, tried to retch, but her throat was blocked. She was suffocating, and she was sure she was going to pass out, when something shot from her mouth and fell on the tiles with a soft thump.
As soon as it hit the floor, it began to screech. It was the most high-pitched screech Suzie had ever heard. It made her teeth tingle and her ears ache.
What was it? It was about the size of a mouse right now, but it was growing, right before her eyes. It had brown-coloured fur, again like a mouse, but it stood on two little legs. Its face was like the face of a monkey, except that its eyes glowed a vile yellow-green colour.
Then it jumped at her, landing on the leg of her slacks. Suzie screamed. She tasted blood in her mouth from the thing’s violent exit. And the hellish screech was still piercing her ears.
She kicked out frantically, once, twice, three times. She felt the things claws sinking into her flesh, grappling to stay attached, but the fourth time she kicked, it flew towards the wall. The screech became a scream.
It was perhaps the size of a hedgehog now, and the hatred on its face was more visible than before. The look on its horribly humanoid features was what horrified Suzie most of all. Its fur was still wet from its disgusting birth.
Then something moved in her stomach, and she felt her chest tighten. Another of the things was working its way up through her. She had never wanted to throw up more in her whole life.
And this time she did. She bent over, heaved, and emptied her stomach all over the tiles. She could feel the hard lump of the second creature riding the tide of puke, passing through her gullet. She heard it thump on the floor, and begin to screech.
She was on her hands and knees now. She opened her eyes, which had been closed, just in time to see the first creature—now almost as big as a rabbit, though it was nothing but a grey-brown blur to her tear-filled eyes—launch itself towards her throat.
Her hands shot forward of their own accord. She grabbed the thing. Touching it sent a shockwave of loathing through her. It was a slimy, feverishly hot, throbbing ball of fur. And now its shriek had been joined by the shriek of its newborn brother.
Somehow, through the pain and the horror and the disgust, she managed to hold onto the desperately-struggling creature. She rose to her feet, swaying and shaking. She pushed the monster—which she could feel growing, against her fingers—onto the sideboard, pressed it down harder with her left hand while she took the chopping-knife into her right, and stabbed it right in its upturned belly.
The wail that followed must have been heard in the entire street. It resonated with such ferocious hatred, as well as pain, that Suzie stepped backwards in dismay, letting it go.
She thought she had killed it, but as soon as it was free, it clambered to its feet and leapt towards her again, its eyes blazing. At the same moment, there was a white-hot burning in her stomach, and she felt another of the hellish foetuses moving inside her.
Once again, she managed to grab the creature as it went for her throat-— now it was as big as a kitten—- but, at the very moment she did, she felt the claws of the second monster dig into her leg.
She fell backwards, perhaps through shock as much as the force of her attacker. Her head struck against the record-player, and she must have hit the power button, because One Bad Apple by the Osmonds began to fill the air, at party volume.
The shrieking of the creatures stopped instantly. The thing in her hands ceased to struggle. It stopped throbbing, and went completely limp. The pain in her stomach slowly faded.
Suzie lay on the tiles, panting, her head throbbing with pain, listening to her favourite song, careless of the taste of blood and vomit in her mouth. Her sister had always lectured her to retract the arm of the record player when she was finished, not just hit the power button. You’re wearing down the needle, she’d say.