Sunday, 22 May 2016

The Cottage in the Cottage (2012)

This is a story that (bizarrely) got me into a lot of trouble with the 'horror community' a few years ago. It's one of a set of stories that appeared in a collection that poked gentle fun at some of the more corny tropes of horror. To my surprise the collection caused a storm that broke the proverbial teacup and had to be accommodated in a larger coffee mug...

It so happened that in the autumnal days of a gloomy year many decades ago, long before I was born, the writer of ghost stories and tales of mortal terror known as Ewepond Crosse-&-Blackwell, who had published many hardback volumes of highly-regarded prose works, was invited to stay in the remote cottage of his friend, Charles Fizzy-Refreshment, also a writer of ghost stories and mortal terror tales.
Ewepond accepted the invitation without eyeing a batlid, for although the cottage in question had an awful reputation for creepiness, indeed for being so creepy that even creepy things avoided it (apart from those that were responsible for making it creepy), he was a man with a tough spirit who rarely blubbered with fear like a sissy. Accordingly, he caught a train to the nearest town, Ambience-on-Spec.
There was an hour’s wait before the gyro-bus arrived to convey him a dozen more miles into the country, to the crossroads where a gibbet hung in former times, generally with the corpse of a highwayman rotting inside it for the edification of travellers who might come that way, not that many of them did. Indeed, so infrequent were wayfarers out in that lonely zone that gentlemen of the road and other bandits usually starved to death for lack of victims to rob before they ever had a chance of being arrested and executed by any court-appointed hangman.
During this wait, Ewepond Cross-&-Blackwell visited a tearoom and ordered a cup of tea and a teacake. The waitress fussed and grumbled and muttered that it was no time for tea, because it wasn’t teatime, but it can’t be confidently asserted that she refused to serve him, for she did, and she also gave him a complimentary mint, which he placed beneath the root of his tongue like a cross-section of mandrake.
“Excuse me, do many visitors come here?” he asked her.
“O heaven no, sir! Not on my nelly! An honest waitress I’ve been for sixty years, knowing my station in life, and I ain’t seen more than half a dozen outsiders venture here in that time!”
“Really? That’s not many, is it? Too bad. More sugar!”
“It’ll rot your pearlies, sir, it will!”
Ewepond had expected this response. “My buggering pearlies are my own business. Get it pronto, wench-hag!”
And she did. And the sugar came in a bowl of lumps, two lumps only in total, both deformed, one looking like a ghost, the other like some sort of sodding psycho. But he dropped them in his tea anyway and they made a little splash and tannin strained his shirt.
“Oh blast! Now I shall have to arrange a washday!”
He drank his tea, munched his teacake, dissolved the mint with the spit of his considerable erudition, and then stood to climb aboard the gyro-bus that had just pulled up. A curious vehicle, donated by the Swiss, who had invented them. The motor turned an iron flywheel slung under the chassis as well as the wheels; coasting downhill in neutral without power did the same thing; then the energy stored by the iron flywheel helped the engine to go up hills more cheaply and efficiently.
“Where to, guvnor?” called the cheery yokel driver.
“To the frigging crossroads, man!”
“Return to the frigging crossroads, right you are!”
“Not a return, you blithering thickie, I want a single!” shouted the very talented author Ewepond Cross-&-Blackwell. “I’m not coming back this way. Ambience-on-Spec is a dull place.”
“A s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-single?” blurted the terrified driver.
“Yes, yes, like a man without a girlfriend. Why are you gaping at me like a cider-soaked monkey? Hasn’t anyone ever gone to the crossroads without needing to come back before?”
“Well,” swallowed the driver, recovering his composure with extreme difficulty, not that he had much in the first place, “I don’t know anything about need, sir, but they don’t come back if you go one way. That’s right enough. Sure as legs are legs, sir. Yes.”
Ewepond scratched his chin. He was intrigued.
“My friend lives near there,” he said.
The driver turned pale. Then he opened his mouth and laughed. “Your friend? Oh, I see! Ha ha! Very good, sir! Yes, very droll! A fine man like yourself from the upper classes is certainly allowed to play a joke on the stupid lower class workers like myself.”
Ewepond was exasperated. If the fool wanted to think it was all a joke, so be it! As long as he gave him the ticket he asked for, it didn’t matter at all to him. And that’s what the driver did.
Ewepond was the only passenger on the gyro-bus. There was, in fact, another passenger, but she was thick and doesn’t count. She sat alone at the very back, on a seat by herself, without any companions, knitting with her disgusting needles a grandfather clock.
“Bloody woollen timepieces!” sneered Ewepond.
The gyro-bus wound its way through the blasted countryside. First it went this way, then that way, then this way again, then that way again. It carried on like this for a time, then it went that way, then this way, then it went this way again, then that way, then that way, then this way twice. It finally went this way, that way, that way.
“Here we are, sir. The crossroads of hideous doom!”
“Stop the vehicle then, moron!”
“Yes, sir, right away, sir, thank you, sir!”
Ewepond got out without saying thanks. He was in a grumpy mood, a dark blight had descended on him, indigestion played rubbish drums deep in his belly and his bum cheeks ached from too much scholarly farting. A lonely walk over fields and through a forest now awaited him. He had his map with him, one that Charles Fizzy-Refreshment had mailed to him in the post. Charles had drawn it himself.
“No official maps of the region exist,” he’d explained.
Ewepond squinted at it, mumbling:
“Let’s see now. Walk up the eastern arm of the crossroads, looking out for a stile as I go. Then over the stile and through the meadows of Plonker Dong, the idiot farmer, avoiding his bulls. Then into Trumper Woods and out the other side and across Poo Marsh on the rotting boardwalk. Then it is only five miles to another woodland, Spitroast Forest, and in the middle of this forest I will locate the cottage!”
So he set off with grim determination and a long stride.
Eight hours later, as the sun was setting, he eventually stumbled to the door of the cottage and rapped on it.
“Let me in, for the love of God’s insurance policy!”
A thin voice came. “I don’t like salesmen. Go and piss off. And don’t come back ever again in your life.”
“Charles! Charles! It was a figure of speech! An expletive! Don’t you recognise my voice? I’m Ewepond!”
And the door creaked open and there in the doorway loomed a man, a very creepy man, with a rusty axe blade wedged in his head. His purple eyes rotated like wobbly cartwheels. “Ewepond! So good to see you! So glad you accepted my invitation, what?”
“Of course I did, you buggering softie! B-b-b-b-but—”
Charles smirked. “Oh, you’ve noticed the axe blade. An accident when I was chopping wood. Very odd. There have been some changes since I last wrote to you, but don’t worry!”
“May I come in and eat your food and drink your whisky?”
“Certainly. Empty your bladder too!”
And the two friends embraced, but not like sissies, and went inside the cottage. Then Charles led Ewepond into the main room and sat him down on a chair in front of the fire and fetched him a bottle of Malt, passing it to him without a glass, because the glasses were all full of sick and bad to use; so Ewepond, who had massive talent at writing stories, glugged from the bottle like a tramp and wiped his lips.
“Delicious. I love your buggering whiskies, buddy.”
“Cheers, pal. So how was—”
“My journey? Awful. Too many thickies.”
“No, no, not your journey. Your prejudices. I mean, do you still keep a brace of prejudices inside your soul?”
“Of course. And I water them regularly with lies.”
“Nice! I bet they are huge now?”
“Frigging enormous, don’t you know? Yes, I still cultivate prejudices, biases and all sort of intolerance. What about you? Do you have hobbies? I seem to recall you collect aerials.”
Charles shook his head, the axe blade gleaming in the firelight like the cheek of a robot, and laughed. “Not aerials. Antennae. Yes, I have 93,563 of them now and add a new one every ten minutes. But less of the casual small talk! I have something to show you.”
“Is it your scrotum scar again?”
“No, it isn’t. Sorry.”
“Is it the mushrooms in your underpants?”
“Nope. Guess again.”
“Is it something scary, something creepy and mad?”
Charles nodded like a whore on her knees facing a customer and doing you know what, or maybe you don’t know if you’ve led a sheltered life as I flipping have. Anyway, he nodded.
“Show it to me then, you cow!” cried Ewepond.
Charles lit a brown candle from the fire in the grate and guided like a bipedal toad his friend down a winding corridor that seemed to dip down into the bowels of the earth itself.
“This is my cellar. Where I keep my w—”
“Wife?” gasped Ewepond.
“Whisky,” corrected Charles with a snort.
Ewepond was relieved. “For one moment I thought you’d switched to the Lips of Isis.” And when Charles turned his head and draped a baffled expression over it, Ewepond added, “Switched from the Eye of Horus, I mean…” But Charles was still confused.
“No matter!” said Ewepond, blushing furiously.
They reached the end of the corridor, which like a backward intestine disgorged them into the stomach of a cellar. Whisky bottles were all over the place; and leather jackets hung from pegs hammered into the rock of the wall, the living rocks, even though rock’s not alive, and in the pockets of those leather jackets were more whisky bottles. It was paradise or hell or both at the same time, if you prefer.
Ewepond did prefer, but before he could open and glug himself silly, Charles plucked at his tweed elbow.
“This is what I found the other day,” he hissed.
And he pointed with his finger at a space behind a barrel of whisky in the darkest corner. Ewepond went to look but it was too dark to see what was there, so Charles turned around, bent over, held the candle flame near his buttocks and broke a mighty wind.
The fart ignited; and in the sudden, brief but glorious flash, Ewepond saw what no man was supposed to see.
“It’s a model cottage!” he croaked, holding his nose.
Charles nodded. “An exact replica of my cottage. Exact, I say! Guess what? The detail is perfect inside too.”
“Including this cellar?” Ewepond whispered.
“Yes, and even including the whisky; and even that whisky barrel and even another cottage, even smaller, which contains another cellar and yet another cottage and so on, and so on!”
“But this is some sort of mathematical horror!”
“Aye, it farting well is!”
“But what does this mean? What? What?”
Charles Fizzy-Refreshment turned pale, so pale that even pale wasn’t pale in comparison but dark, darker than dark in fact, so dark that even dark wasn’t dark in comparison but pale, paler even than the pale that was the paleness of Charles. That’s how pale he was. Pale. Beyond the pale. A pale man indeed. Very bloody pale.
“It means… it means… that there are two little men in there right now. You and me! And in the even smaller cottage there are two littler men in there right now; and in the even smaller cottage there are two littler men in there right now; and in the even—”
“I get the point. Muffle it,” said Ewepond glumly.
There was a dreadful horrid pause.
“And if they are us, they must be writers!” Charles finally blurted like a bloated trapeze ape. “And they must have written our books! And they must be getting all the royalties too!”
“Burn the frigging cheats!” screamed Ewepond.
And he plucked out the axe blade from Charles’ head, leaving a hole that gaped and revealed a wriggly giant white worm curled up inside the skull instead of a brain, and he used this blade to broach the whisky barrel so that the liquid spilled onto the model cottage; then he snatched from the hand of his friend the vile candle.
“No! You don’t understand!” protested Charles.
But it was too late. Ewepond cast the flame onto the model and at once it burst into an inferno. Suddenly there were flames all around them, for the bigger cottage itself, the one they stood in right now, had also been set on fire, by a vast Ewepond from some larger dimension. It was connected in some way, all of it. Everything…
They screamed as they roasted. “Aaaaiiiiiieeeee!”

Friday, 6 May 2016

The Unkissed Artist Formerly Known as Frog (2014)

This is one of those tales where the title totally controls what happens in the story itself. Where the title came from is a different question. Titles just pop into my head for no obvious reason. Then I write the story they suggest, or add it to a list of titles for later use. This list is very long now. Some titles have been waiting to have their stories written for decades. Others are used almost immediately. This particular story appears in my MIRRORS IN THE DELUGE collection.

He was an artist by the name of Cripen but everybody called him Frog and his opinion on the matter didn’t count. The fact he was a frog wasn’t enough in his mind to justify the lazy appellation, but people called him Frog and kept doing so anyway. He was partly resigned to it.
But only partly. In his soul he yearned to be taken seriously and a start to taking him seriously would be to refer to him by his proper name, Cripen. There was no doubt about his talent. He was an excellent artist and his canvases really seemed to say something new. And yet...
His frogginess went against him. His fundamental essence of frog had an inexplicable effect on critics, who did a bizarre facial contortion when they saw his work, a shudder that wobbled up and down their faces several times, losing speed on each lap until it eventually slowed to a standstill as a very deep frown that was undiluted concentrate of shudder.
If they didn’t know the artist was a frog, this shudder never happened. So it was a reaction to the worker, not the work, and Cripen felt even more insulted when he learned this was the case. The truth is that the critics were anti-frog and it was a prejudice that impeded his career.
But art was his life and he couldn’t give up because of the ignorance of a handful of professional critics. He continued painting as always and he was still able to show his work in certain small exhibitions, but not once did he ever get a positive review, nor did he sell any pictures.
Thus he became the living embodiment of the famished artist but luckily for him he was able to eat flies, so summers weren’t too bad, though as he was a giant frog there were almost too few flies in the city to satisfy his appetite fully. In winter he had to seek less wholesome food.
So he went to the opening nights of shows by many other artists in lots of galleries and there he was able to take the free snacks on offer, mainly canap├ęs, salted nuts and pickles, generally with a glass or two of white wine. And that is how he prevented himself from starving to death.
People who knew him would sometimes come over to chat. “How goes it with you, Frog? Are you still painting?”
Yes, he would nod. How could he give it up?
“No plans to find a proper job?”
Painting was a proper job, wasn’t it? What did they mean by asking such a question in a gallery? He sighed deeply.
I was sitting on the carriage of an underground train once when it stopped at a station and he came in from the platform. He hopped through the doors as they slid open and positioned himself in the space between the metal poles that are provided for standing passengers to hold onto.
Nobody looked. Commuters hate to show curiosity.
But I was fascinated by him, and the fact that the carriage reminded me of an enormous artificial tadpole made me want to be a part of his life, to engage with him on some level. It’s not that I thought I could help him with his career or felt pity for him. It was something else.
I think it was just a case of understanding that here was a phenomenon that might never be repeated, a peculiar situation, a giant frog that had come to London in the hope of making a success in the art world and not by exploiting the oddness of his corporeal form but simply by creating paintings considered outmoded by the trendy art establishment.
“The streets aren’t paved with gold, are they?” I said.
He turned to look at me. I withered under that look and my mouth went dry and I muttered something very inane:
“If at first you don’t succeed, try and try and try again.”
He instantly turned his back on me.
I got off at the next station, burning with embarrassment, even though I didn’t want to alight here and would be late for a meeting with a friend. I was a fool to believe that my meagre interest in him would cheer him up after all the detrimental things he heard every single day.
But from that moment it appeared that a cosmic conspiracy had decided to make me part of its workings and the ultimate aim of this plot was to mock Frog. I took my place on the crowded escalator to ascend to ground level and the stranger directly in front of me began to hold a conversation over my head with the stranger immediately behind me.
It was a conversation about art. “I hear he holds the brush in his mouth, his enormous gaping maw,” said one, to which the other replied, “That makes perfect sense because he has no hands.”
“Excuse me, but Frog is a friend of mine,” I snarled.
It was a lie but I felt I was standing up for justice and yet the two men sniggered and rolled their eyes in reply and I was left uncertain if they had truly been talking about the amphibian painter.
“He is admirable and richly talented,” I continued but in a much fainter voice, and I was grateful when the escalator ride ended and I was able to rush off into the crowds that thronged the streets.
I decided that all I wanted to do was forget about art, but everywhere I went I encountered people who seemed to have some involvement in the art world. This made me rather apprehensive.
When I reached my apartment I disconnected the phone and refused to leave for several days. That broke the malign spell and the world was normal again when next I ventured out. Indeed I completely forgot all about Frog over the following weeks and then one day I was crossing a bridge when I saw some graffiti painted on the stone balustrade at the halfway point. I say ‘graffiti’ but in fact it was a picture of exquisite beauty.
It showed the view from the bridge but not as the view really was, sooty and grey and depressed, but vibrant and alive and bursting with positive energy. It was a skilful piece of work because it gave the impression that the entire spectrum of ecstatic colours had been used and yet in truth the work had been executed entirely in shades of pale green.
The signature said: CRIPEN and it was beautifully lettered.
I stood and appreciated it for half an hour.
Then I started to see other paintings around the city, all of them signed by Cripen and all done in green paint. Unable to exhibit in galleries he had decided to share his talent with the world on the streets.
I couldn’t decide if this was a wise course of action for him to follow or a sign of defeat, that he had started to give up.
So then I tried an experiment. I went along in the middle of the night with a tin of paint and a brush and obliterated his signature on a small selection of the paintings. It had occurred to me that if the works were anonymous, unattributed, people would like them better, would see them for what they really were, would finally show the appreciation they deserved.
But my plan backfired. Somehow, the rumour spread that these artworks without a signature were the work of Frog. And the fact they were unsigned was seen as proof that he even he disliked them.
In fact it soon became worse than that, for every example of street art that lacked the name of its creator was also cited as one of Frog’s latest efforts, and so the truth of his unique talent was turned into a big lie by tens of thousands of examples of urban dross and amateur scrawls.
I only saw him once more after that. He was standing in the rain outside an art gallery and peering through the window at the people inside. The gallery was a small one and the door was too narrow to permit him to enter. He gaped at the food he was unable to reach and his hunger was a palpable force. I was embarrassed and wanted to pass him without making eye contact, but he spoke to me and I stopped in my tracks. He groaned:
“If only I had a patroness, but no woman will look after me. I’ll never be kissed, cared for, tolerated and indulged because there are no giant lady frogs in this city or anywhere in the wide world.”
“The world is not so wide,” I answered stupidly.
“It’s wide enough,” he said.
“Where do you get your green paint from?”
“That’s my blood, you see.”
This reply was delivered in such a lonesome tone of voice that I shivered with the fear and repulsion that are always just beyond sympathy and this shiver undulated me back into motion and I hurried on.
In the weeks that followed I tried to forget this meeting but it haunted me. I replayed the scene over and over in my mind. I couldn’t offer him any comfort for his predicament. But then one day, while I was walking down a staircase, an appropriate thing to say occurred to me.
I knew I would never rest until I had delivered this message to him, so I went out to search for him, making enquiries among the places where artists go. Finally someone gave me his new address.
It was in the poorest quarter of the city, a dilapidated house in one of the most tumbledown streets I have ever seen. I knocked on his door to no avail, so I went to rap my knuckles on the window, and as I did so I happened to glance through the grimy glass into the interior.
I saw a room with walls and ceiling covered in murals, all of them superb and all of them green. In the middle of this room, which was bare of furniture, I saw a shape that surely belonged to him.
I shouted out my message, “Cripen is an anagram of Prince.”
But it was too late. He had croaked.