short stories

Book Review: Short Stories : Crimes, Cults and Curious Cats by Jonathan Day

Crimes, Cults and Curious Cats

I was attracted to this book by its cover, which is certainly spiffy. A curlicue dragon and a very strange looking cat face. This collection of ten stories by UK author Jonathan Day features “crimes, cults and curious cats,” as its subtitle proclaims, but it also has a lot of cops. Almost every story includes someone who is a PC, DC, DS, DI or DCI, and often more than one of these ranks is present.

“Cock-a-Doodle-Do!” has a couple of women PCs on the trail of a disruptive mechanical cock (rooster) who experience an encounter with a peculiar cat (probably the one on the cover image).

In “Willow Pattern World” a tatooed detective with unique talents pursues a murderous chemist.

In “Feeding the Monster,” an elderly woman with extreme synesthesia helps her detective nephew investigate a derelict windmill with a sinister history.

“The Impossible Detective” is the best of the batch, in my opinion. A feisty female DS (nicknamed Tweet) on the track of a missing child encounters the ghost of a murdered detective, and reopens a cold and grisly case involving an evil cult.

In “Behold, the Face of God!” two privileged young ladies are introduced to a fossil-hunting cult which has combined science and religion in a most startling way.

“Our Lady of the Herbs” features a woman vicar and a scholar of ancient texts digging into the origins of a quaint village festival, and then struggling with whether to reveal the results of their investigations.

In “The Greening of Toby Jug” a ghost hunter hoping to snare a poltergeist has a fatal encounter with greed and destruction.

In “The Hammer of God” a young DC investigating the murders of three elderly eccentrics begins to wonder about his superior, who is a priest as well as a DI.

“Cosmic Cats” is a short, dream-like tale that I found to be the weakest of the ten.

In “The Cult of the Bast Cat” a young PC tracking down the drug-addicted father of an infant ends up working with a Chief Superintendent to discover the fate of a detective who disappeared while investigating the Cult of the Bast Cat.

The sincere and straightforward tone of these stories cleverly conceals occasional subtle social commentary. Several of the detectives are women and a few are from ethnic minorities. The primary characters are sympathetic and distinct. Dialogue is lively and sometimes quite funny. Every one of these stories is engaging and most are thoroughly satisfying.

Short Stories : Crimes, Cults and Curious Cats is available free on Smashwords.

 

 

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Another Fan Fiction: Welcome to the Witch House

I have a habit of embroidering on works of fiction by others. First it was the Herbert West Series — four novels spun off H.P. Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Reanimator.” Then, a few months ago, a kind of sequel to Robert W. Chambers’s “The Repairer of Reputations.” And now a return to HPL: several years ago I had a notion to write a novel based on “The Dreams in the Witch House.” I started wondering what sort of person Walter Gilman, the main character of that story, might have been. By the time I finished a first chapter, though, I realized there would be no novel. Unlike Herbert West and his narrator friend, Gilman has no opportunities for further choices, no dilemmas. Once he’s embarked on his course of study and living in the Witch House, stuff just happens to him. The only reason to keep reading is to see how he meets his demise. But I had a look at that first chapter recently, and thought it was a well-crafted cul-de-sac. So here it is.

 

WELCOME TO THE WITCH HOUSE

Arkham, Massachusetts, January 1925

The Ruminations of Walter Gilman.

 

He turned up four months after I moved into the Witch House – fat Frank Elwood, from my home town of Haverhill, Massachusetts. When I saw him in the front hall, talking to landlord Dombrowski, it was like a chunk of that practical, shoe-obsessed city had tracked me down to Arkham, intent on dragging me back.

As if I hadn’t had the devil of a time getting away from the place already. “Why do you have to go to Arkham?” My father must have asked me that a hundred times, alternating with “Why do you have to go to college? You can step into a good job right here and now, and when I die it will all be yours. You don’t need college.”

He was right, if all I wanted to do was spend the rest of my life among clanking, roaring machines and the louts who run them, cutting, stretching, shaping, stitching and glazing millions of receptacles for feet. Or if I was fascinated by the balance sheet and the ledger, the profit margin and the management of business.

But I am not. And unfortunately, my father managed to sire only one son. He will have to resign himself to a son-in-law as heir to his very own chunk of the Queen Slipper City of the World. Not everyone is content to fasten his nose to the grindstone and develop a fascination with grains of grit. The world is too wide and too strange for that.

The second thought that popped into my head when I saw Elwood looming over old Dombrowski was that my father had sent him to cajole or threaten me into quitting Miskatonic and going home. That was absurd, though. If he wanted to do that, he would do it himself, and even if he wanted to send an emissary, it wouldn’t be Frank Elwood.

He was the son of a former foreman in Gilman’s Excellent Boot and Shoe Company – former because he was dead, the result of an unfortunate encounter with one of the machines he was in charge of. His death was a considerable nuisance to my father, and even to me, because unrest among the workers and threats to form a union made Father decide it would be politic for the two of us to attend the funeral.

That was where I first saw Frank, glowering at me as I took a place in the pew across from the one he and his mother and sisters occupied. Maybe it was because we were close in age, but I felt him putting a mark on me, as though for future consideration. And now, here he was in Arkham, in the very place where I lived.

Some call it the Witch House, after one of the most famous denizens of witch-haunted Arkham – Keziah Mason, known to the initiate as Nahab. No one knows this (because I haven’t told anyone), but she was my reason for choosing to live in this house, otherwise shunned by Miskatonians, faculty and students alike.

It’s in the oldest part of the city, a huddle of sway-backed, gambrel-roofed structures that manage to stay standing after nearly three hundred years. I’m sure they were never meant to last that long by the honest Puritans who built them, nor to shelter some of the beings that have found homes within them over the years (and I don’t mean the ubiquitous rats). Unless one burns down or collapses from internal rot, they persist, growing ever more disreputable, like a group of drunks holding each other up as they lurch along.

I think the home folks finally gave up on me when I told them where I decided to live. “That horrible slum. Why, the people there aren’t respectable. They’re all foreigners and” – whispering – “Catholics.” They decided I was doomed. The odd few times I went back home to visit, they looked at me the way people look at condemned criminals or the terminally ill.

They would never have believed me if I had told them the simple truth – that Keziah Mason was part of my research, along with non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics. In fact, I think that would have given my father grounds to ship me off to an asylum.

But what was Frank Elwood doing in the Witch House? That was the question.

He and Dombrowski looked up when they heard me close the door. “Oh, Mr. Geelman,” intoned the landlord, scooping at the air with his hand, as though it was elastic and he could pull me closer that way. “Here is another man from the college, Mr. All-wood, his name. This is Mr. Walter Geelman. He lives in the room at the top of the house and has to climb up many, many stairs. You only have to go up to second floor.” He beamed as though he’d said something profound.

Frank Elwood just stood there looking at me like he was trying to figure something out, chewing over his thoughts like a cow with a cud. There actually was something bovine about him; he was big and solid and slow, with a heavy face and a wide forehead and a lot of thick straight brown hair. His eyes peered out like windows under a thatched roof.

Finally his mouth opened and words came out. “Walter Gilman. I know you.”

I bowed in acknowledgement of this fact. “Perhaps, but I don’t believe we’ve actually met.”

This disconcerted him, as I intended. His face turned red and he looked at his feet (which were large like the rest of him and not particularly well-shod, surprising in a Haverhillian).

He raised his head and looked at me again. I could have sworn he was angry and trying not to show it. At me or at himself?

“We have now,” he said and turned to Dombrowski again, then back to me as though he couldn’t help himself.

“You live here?” he asked. “Here in this house?”

I smiled. “I do. Mr. Dombrowski was kind enough to rent me one of the rooms in the attic. A very special room. I have found it most satisfactory.”

I had nothing more to say to either of them and headed for the stairs. The first set was relatively wide and gracious, except that each step was bowed and hollowed from three centuries of use. I watched my feet move from one to the other and thought of all the hundreds and thousands of other feet that had preceded them – and whose they might have been. Keziah Mason’s for sure. They must have trodden these steps many times, even the narrow ones from the second floor to the third, all the way up to the top of the house.

My room was larger than you would expect, but with the low ceiling typical of its location. It had a single eastward-facing window that was bright in the morning and dimmed gradually after noonday. Night came earlier there than in other places.

The real attraction didn’t reveal itself to me until November, when, sick and feverish, I spent a couple of days in bed, dozing and staring at the ceiling, watching the watery sunlight traverse the room, lighting up now this wall, now that corner, a piece of the ceiling and the opposite wall, before fading away and leaving my abode in soft, dusty shadow.

I thought about what we had been discussing in Prof. Upham’s class before I’d been taken ill – the fourth dimension and possible freakish curvatures in space which may be used as points of contact with distant parts of the cosmos. I thought about Keziah Mason and what she had told Judge Hathorne at her trial in 1692, about lines and curves that led those who knew about them to spaces other than the known.

I fixed my eyes on the place where the north wall, slanting gently inward from its outer to its inner end, met the downward-slanting ceiling. The conjunction was an uneasy one, with peculiar angles. I thought of the equations I had pored over on many a long evening, and fancied I could see a sort of sliding or shifting of planes, as though a long-closed door was coming ever so slightly ajar. “There’s the gate,” I thought muzzily, “the portal. Right there.” Then I fell asleep again and dreamed strange dreams.

The next day I was well enough to go back to class, but found it hard to concentrate. I could hardly wait to get back to the Witch House and take a good look at the north wall from the outside. As I expected, it was perfectly straight and what was more, there had once been a window just where my room was. Judging by the carpentry, the window had been closed up a very long time ago, in the 18th century, if not earlier. I wondered what might be found in the narrow triangular space between the inner and outer walls, where no light had entered for more than two centuries.

Then I grew curious about the loft above my ceiling, in the very peak of the roof, and borrowed a ladder from Dombrowski so I could get a closer look. Peering through festoons of cobwebs from the other end of the attic, I could see heavy planks and pegs similar to those that sealed the window, covering an aperture that must have led to a cramped space with a slanting floor directly above my room. I tried to persuade Dombrowski to let me open it up, but he refused outright, saying that he had enough trouble keeping the rats under control. But he’s a superstitious old loon, like all these Poles, and I thought I saw a nervous twitch in his eye. There was nothing I could say to make him change his mind.

The next time I saw Elwood, he was trying to manhandle a couple of suitcases up the stairs.

“It would be easier if you took them one at a time,” I offered, earning myself a look like a clenched fist. I guessed he would have shaken one at me if his hands weren’t full. That nearly made me laugh.

“Here, let me take one of them,” I said and seized the handle. The thing weighed a lot more than I expected and nearly wrenched my arm off, but I didn’t think Elwood saw that. We progressed up to the second floor and down the hall to his room. After landing the case, I stood and looked around. His room was bigger than mine and had a fireplace, but all the walls and ceilings met at the expected ninety degrees.

I thought a bit of conversation was the right thing for the occasion. “So what is it you’re studying at Miskatonic?”

Elwood scowled and emitted a foggy grunt, as though this was the first time he’d spoken aloud all day. Clearing his throat, he tried again. “Medicine,” he said. “Eventually. I’m taking a bachelor of science degree first, of course.” A pause. “What about you?”

“Math and physics,” I said. “And witchcraft, of a sort. Welcome to the Witch House, Elwood.”

Then I turned and left.

The Account of Frank Elwood.

I never intended to live in such a shabby part of Arkham. I didn’t even think a college town would have a slum like that. Just about all the people who live there are poor, except Gilman, but I guess he has his own reasons for being there.

My first semester at Miskatonic I had a room close to the college, practically across the street, in fact. It was nice and clean and close to downtown as well. Right at the start I kicked up my heels a bit, seeing as I was away from home and didn’t have to be the “man of the house,” as my mother called me.

But after a few months I sat down and did some figuring and the results of this effort were not good. I was living beyond my means. My scholarship wasn’t enough to pay for everything and there was nothing to spare for me from my family. After counting up my remaining dollars I decided the only thing to do was to find cheaper living quarters.

I didn’t want to ask other students or my professors. No one likes to admit that he’s coming down in the world, not that I had a very long distance to slide before I hit the bottom. As luck would have it, I saw a notice in a cafeteria on Church Street – “Room for Rent.”  It gave the address and the name John Dombrowski. I went over there right after classes the same day.

The house was brown and reminded me of an old person who used to be taller, with little windows squinting out like bleary eyes. I stood in the street for a while, wondering if I really wanted to live there. It looked like it had rats. I hate rats. The truth was, though, I didn’t have much choice.

Just then a fellow came out of the front door and grinned at me. “You looking for Dombrowski?” he asked, speaking with a thick Polish accent. “He’s in his office. You just go in.”

“I guess I will,” I replied and walked inside.

Dombrowski was one of those short, fat Poles who smell like garlic. You see them everywhere now. A bunch of them were in my Dad’s crew at the factory. He said they were good enough workers, once you pounded the right way to do things into their thick heads. I never figured one of them was going to be my landlord.

I asked about the room and he showed it to me. It was all right – on the second floor, not too small, with a bed, a wardrobe, a chair and a table. There was no bookcase, but what did I expect? There was a fireplace that looked like it hadn’t been used in a long time, but most important there didn’t seem to be any active rat holes, although I could see a couple of stopped-up ones.

“Are rats a problem here?” I asked.

“No rats!” Dombrowski said, so quickly I knew he had to be lying. “I use traps, I use poison. No more rats!” I wasn’t in a position to argue and Dombrowski, who knew his business, escorted me swiftly back to the front hall. He was telling me that for an extra twenty-five cents a day I could get a good breakfast, “cooked by Mrs. Dombrowski; you can’t find better anywhere,” when the door opened and someone came in. I looked up expecting to see another lodger, a stranger, but then I recognized him.

I had seen Walter Gilman around Haverhill when I was growing up there, but it wasn’t like we were pals. He was the big boss’s son and my Dad was just one of the workers. The last time I’d seen Walter was at my father’s funeral, sitting next to his old man. I wanted to go up and slug them both, but that would have troubled my mother and probably landed me in jail, so I didn’t.

It looked to me like Walter was trying to dress like he belonged to one of the wilder college sets. He wore a coat that looked like part of a costume, with a fringed scarf wrapped around his neck and a fedora in his hand. He was shorter than me and skinny, with almost-black hair that needed a trip to the barber and a little moustache that looked like he fussed over it in front of a mirror, willing it to grow in thicker.

He closed the door and stood on the mat looking at me like I was an exhibit in a museum. I could almost see the little wheels turning in his head:  there’s that fellow whose father died in my dad’s factory. Too bad. I had to take an afternoon to go to the funeral. What a bore. What’s his name? Not important.

Then Dombrowski got back into his song and dance, introducing us as though we were at a party. I guess to him we were two of a kind, both college students. People from Miskatonic probably didn’t rent rooms from him often so he was delighted to have two of us at once. And I can’t blame the man for what he couldn’t possibly have known.

He couldn’t have known that James Gilman, Walter’s father, killed my Dad. All right, he didn’t stick a knife into him or poison him or shoot him dead, but he was just as responsible for his death as if he’d done it deliberately.

Thomas Elwood, my father, was foreman on the leather cutting machines at Gilman’s shoe factory. He’d worked his way up from the bottom and was proud of that. One day when he was clearing a fault in one of the machines, a belt pulled him into the blades and he was badly cut. He died a couple of hours later. If James Gilman hadn’t been too cheap to install modern equipment with safety switches, my father would be alive today, my mother and sisters would have a comfortable life and I wouldn’t have to live in a rat-infested slum.

But never mind – once I’ve earned my degrees and qualified as a doctor, things will change.

As for Walter Gilman, I decided to stay out of his way. It would be easier if we didn’t live in the same house, but it could be done.

Walking back to the college district, I started to wonder just what Gilman was doing in a place like Dombrowski’s. It wasn’t because he didn’t have enough money; the last time I looked, his old man was driving a Packard and the factory still didn’t have a union. Well, he could keep his secrets to himself. I was going to avoid him.

This resolution was tested the very next day, when I moved my things into my new room. I had two big old suitcases that had belonged to my grandfather. He’d arrived in America with all his belongings in them and had done well. My worldly goods fitted into them with room to spare, so I suppose I had a job of work to catch up to Grandpa. The case with my books made for a heavy load, but I wanted to get the move done as fast as I could, so lugged both suitcases at once and was damn glad when I finally hauled them and myself onto the porch of Dombrowski’s house.

I used the case with the books to hold the door open while I got the other one inside, then picked them both up and started to hump them up the stairs to the second floor. It was harder work than I thought, but I couldn’t go back and there was nowhere to put either case down. I was beginning to think I would have trouble with the corner at the top, when I heard a voice from below.

“You should have known better than to carry both of them at once.” For a second I thought that the labour of moving my possessions had rendered me light-headed, because I remembered my Dad saying things like, “Slow and steady wins the race, Frank,” and “Measure twice, cut once.” Much as I admired my father, I have to admit these sayings sometimes got on my nerves. But now I wished it really was him even while I knew it wasn’t.

I turned and saw Gilman standing at the bottom of the stairs with that stupid fedora in his hand, smirking under his moustache. Smirking at me. I was about to tell him to keep his advice to himself when he ran up the stairs, holding out the hand that didn’t have his hat in it. “Here, I’ll take one of those cases.”

I let him have the one with the books, hoping he’d drop it on his foot. It would serve him right, and besides, I couldn’t hang onto it any more. He had a hard time with it at first but he was right behind me when we reached the top. He followed me into my room and put the case down next to the one I had carried. Instead of leaving, he just stood there, looking around as though he was doing an inspection. I was about to ask him if he’d noticed rats in the house, but he spoke up first.

“So what is it you’re studying, anyway?” he asked.

“Medicine,” I said. Then, because I supposed I owed him something, “What about you?” trying to sound as though I cared.

“Mathematics and physics,” he replied, in that lah-de-dah way of his. Then he said something else, about witchcraft. “Welcome to the Witch House.” He didn’t wait for an answer but turned and left, flipping his fringed scarf over his shoulder.

Math and physics. Well, well. Sometimes I think the good Lord has a sense of humor. I was doing all right in my classes, except for math. One of the things that bothered me about moving farther from campus was that there wouldn’t be anyone handy to ask for help with math problems. But here was Walter Gilman, who was studying that very subject. Except I couldn’t stand to look at his face and remember how he sat there at my Dad’s funeral looking bored.

No – forget Gilman. I’d just have to work harder. I didn’t want any more help from him.

The idea that I might end up helping him never even entered my mind.

 

So now that you’ve read my take on Walter Gilman and Frank Elwood, go and read the real story.

The Deliverer of Delusions, Part 2

Here is the conclusion of the story.

The Deliverer of Delusions

Part 2

A muscular servant admitted me into Dr. Archer’s establishment. “One moment, Miss Castaigne.” He vanished down a plushly carpeted hallway, bearing my card.

I was studying some prints of the Hudson River Valley on the walls of the foyer when a small cough startled me. I had not heard the man’s return.

But it wasn’t the servant. Behind me stood a figure of grey and silver – silver hair, pale skin, grey eyes, grey suit. “Miss Castaigne,” he murmured, extending a hand. “I am John Archer. He clasped my hand in both of his. “I am happy to meet you at last, Miranda Castaigne, despite the sad reason for your presence.”

“Thank you, Dr. Archer.” I extracted my hand. The hall was dimly lit, but did that account for the squinting right eye, a darker colour than its mate? A substitute for the original, perhaps?

“Come into my office, Miss Castaigne.” He applied his hand to the back of my arm. “This way, please.”

Seated in a chair opposite Dr. Archer’s desk, I told him I was seeking a coherent account of Hildred’s last days. “The person at the Asylum said only that he threw himself down a flight of stairs. He had been brought there the previous night, after an incident where a man had been murdered. It was assumed Hildred had committed the crime. I find that hard to believe. My brother was never a violent person.”

The burly manservant entered, bearing a tray with teapot and cups. Dr. Archer poured out. “Some tea, Miss Castaigne?” With his back to the windows, the disturbing squint was no longer visible.

“Miss Castaigne,” Dr. Archer said, “an injury to the brain, such as your brother sustained in the fall from his horse, can cause unpredictable, and indeed violent behaviour.”

“But that fall was more than four years ago! And you declared him cured. He wrote to me months ago, saying he had, as he put it, ‘paid my tuition to Dr. Archer.’”

The doctor’s lips stretched and thinned into a smile. “Yes, I remember that. Indeed, for several years Mr. Castaigne was in most respects as sane as anyone, but such injuries have lasting effects. That is why I insisted he visit me regularly after he left my direct care; and in fact I hired one or two individuals to keep a watch over him, especially after you left the country.”

“You had him watched! So how do you explain these events? Hildred is dead! How could he go from ‘as sane as anyone’ to dead – and in such a terrible way?”

“Calm yourself, Miss Castaigne.” The smile had vanished. Archer’s lips now emitted portentous words. “Clearly, some external event triggered a swift return to an irrational state and set off the sequence of events leading to his death. Do you have any idea what that trigger may have been?”

I took a sip of tea. It was delicious, hot and fragrant. “I don’t know. I’ve been abroad for the past three years. Hildred and I corresponded, of course. He did mention, last spring, that our cousin Louis and Miss Hawberk were likely to marry, but – ”

“Indeed. That may have had a profound effect on young Mr. Castaigne. Perhaps he, too, entertained romantic feelings for this young woman? He did, after all, frequent her father’s shop.”

“No. He never so much as hinted at such a thing. Dr. Archer, my brother Hildred was a … dreamy young man. Impractical, even before his injury. After it, he developed interests in obscure topics. Heraldry, and Napoleon. He became something of a recluse, but a violent attack on another person – that was entirely unlike him!” I set down the now empty teacup, my hand shaking a little.

“You were not in personal contact with him at the time, though. Subtle changes are not conveyed in letters, I fear.”

From a lazy young man about town, I have become active, energetic, temperate, and, above all — oh, above all else — ambitious. I remembered this sentence from one of Hildred’s last letters to me. Hildred, ambitious? God help me, I had smiled. And I had dismissed as a harmless whim the fact that he had begun dating his letters as though they came from the future – 1920.

All this was becoming overwhelming. I felt a little dizzy and decided it was time to end this conversation with Dr. Archer.

“May I ask, Miss Castaigne – what was the reason for your extended absence?” Dr. Archer folded his hands together on the desk and leaned forward slightly. The squint I thought I had seen in his right eye was no longer evident; perhaps I had been mistaken. There was no sense of urgency about him. He was prepared to listen. And I – oh, there was so much I could say! About the death of my father, which launched my mother into rural seclusion. Then Hildred’s accident and transformation. My decision to run away to Paris, comforting myself with the hope that he would someday return to his former self.

“I went to Paris to study art,” I replied, thinking how frivolous that sounded. “There are many Americans there. I became part of that group. It was a very … productive environment.” I felt myself blushing, as though Dr. Archer could see the memories behind my words – days of work and nights of debate and merriment, ramblings beneath the sun, in bird-haunted meadows, on crystalline lakes. The meshing of personalities and aspirations. And Jack Scott.

“Art,” said Dr. Archer, tilting his head and smiling. “Painting, sketching, charcoal, pastels, oils?”

“Printmaking,” I replied. “Lithography.”

“Ah.” He smiled again, without blinking. “And what led you to that medium?”

“Being around others who worked in it, I suppose.” My ears buzzed and my head felt as though it wanted to float away from my body. I hoped I wasn’t becoming ill.

“You were influenced.” He removed his hands from the desk and turned his chair slightly.

“I suppose so. Dr. Archer, I think I have taken up enough of your time – ”

“But you want to know what happened to Hildred, do you not? Well, I can show you.” He stood up. “Come with me.”

I stood up, and almost sat back down. My legs felt like wet ribbons. Dr. Archer grasped my arm firmly and conducted me farther down the hallway to a small elevator. The same muscular servant – or was he an orderly? – opened the sliding gate and heavy door. The conveyance carried us some unknown distance upward, or perhaps downward? I was unfamiliar with these machines. Once the sensation of motion ceased, the man opened the door and gate to another narrow hallway. The carpet here was thinner, and worn.

Without a word, Dr. Archer led me to an open door. Entering the room beyond, I looked around me, astonished.

I found myself in Hildred’s rooms, as I remembered them. There stood the furniture, there hung the familiar pictures. Not at the Benedick, of course, but here, in Dr. Archer’s house on Madison Avenue. If I looked out the window, I would not see the fountain playing or nursemaids wheeling infants along the paved walks. What would I see? Unsteadily, I moved forward, intending to part the nearest set of garnet-coloured curtains, but a large metal box caught my eye. About the size of a biscuit-tin, it had been fitted with metal knobs of some sort.

“What’s that?” I asked. My lips felt slightly numb. “And why did you bring Hildred’s things here?”

“I hoped to resume treating him, when I heard of his arrest and confinement. Unfortunately, his … accident prevented that.”

“It wasn’t an accident,” I muttered. “But his belongings… Why?”

“I wished to create a congenial, welcoming atmosphere, but he never arrived.”

“So he was to be brought here from the Asylum?”

“Yes. I saw Hildred at the Asylum, soon after his arrest and confinement, and offered to take charge of his case. They know me, at the Asylum.” He smiled again, like one who holds all the cards, squinting both his eyes. “I immediately arranged for his possessions to be moved here and placed as you see them before he arrived.”

“Except he killed himself first.” My head was full of fog and I found it hard to think.

“Miss Castaigne, you are quite pale.” He indicated an armchair. “Have a seat here. Pretend you are visiting Hildred. Miss Castaigne, are you familiar with crypto-mesmerism?”

“What?” Still thinking about what he had just told me, I sank onto the chair. “Crypto- I’ve never heard of it.”

“As I thought. Crypto-mesmerism is the effect of art upon susceptible minds. Certain pictures or writings may have a profound influence upon those who view or read them.”

“I suppose, but what – ?”

“Artistic temperaments especially lend themselves to the study of this effect. Your brother Hildred had such a temperament, unrealized though it was. He proved exquisitely susceptible, at least to one particular book.”

He went to a bookcase filled with what I had already recognized as Hildred’s collection of Napoleon books. Ignoring these, he drew out from among them a slender volume, which he handed to me. Swirls of yellow outlined in black adorned the cover. Among them was the title – The King in Yellow.

“I’ve heard of … this book,” I said, my tongue slow and awkward in my mouth. “What sort of influence did it have … on Hildred?”

Dr. Archer went to Hildred’s desk and removed a paper from its surface. He handed it to me. “This was one effect.”

On the paper were two words in my brother’s handwriting, repeated many times. Dozens of times. Hildred Rex. “What does this mean?”

“He thought he would be King. The lost King of America. Mr. Wilde, who was once a patient of mine, aided in my diagnosis and treatment.”

“And that’s why … Hildred murdered him?”

A nod. “ And now, Miss Castaigne, we have much to do. I’ve sent my man to your hotel for your baggage, as I’m sure you would not want to wear your brother’s clothes. Please make yourself comfortable.” He gestured toward the bed, whose plump pillows looked most inviting.

“But why – ?”

“You will be my guest for a while, Miranda Castaigne.” Dr. Archer smiled broadly now, showing large yellow teeth. “Your brother is dead, and your cousin Louis is temperamentally impossible. But you – you definitely have potential.” He grasped my arm yet again and led me toward the bed.

“Potential for what? What will I do here?”

“You will sleep. And when you wake, you will read The King in Yellow. Then we shall see.”

I fell onto the bed and black wings enfolded me. Far away, a voice intoned: …a Consort of the true Blood to serve Him…

The Deliverer of Delusions, Part 1

I posted recently about one of the stories in Robert W. Chambers’s book, The King in Yellow. Just like the fictitious book of that title mentioned in the first four stories, the real one captured my imagination, helped by a graphic novel version by I.N.J. Culbard. So I wrote a fan fiction on that first story — “The Repairer of Reputations.” Aside from writing something new, I learned that the urge to write fan fiction comes from the desire to figure out something in the original work, to clarify ambiguous details or simply to inhabit the world of the original for a while longer.

The story is nearly 3,000 words, so I’m posting it in two parts, of which the first follows forthwith.

 

The Deliverer of Delusions

Part 1

The shop looked as I remembered it, with the same sign over the door. “Hawberk, Armourer.” A closer view revealed four more years of fade and peel. The same tinkling bell, though.

He looked up from his work with a blank-eyed stare. Then – “Ah, Miss Miranda. Miss Castaigne, I mean. My condolences. It’s a sad return home for you.”

“Thank you, Mr. Hawberk. I left Paris as soon as I received Louis’s telegram, but it took me two weeks to get here.”

Bienvenue à nouveau après toutes ces années, Mademoiselle.” Followed by a courtly bow and Gallic hand gesture that made a flash of reflected light from the ring on his right hand. It must have been the signet on which my brother Hildred had recognized the arms of some ancient English family – one of the reasons he found Hawberk and his shop so fascinating.

Merci, Monsieur.” As always, suits of armour stood around the shop, in various stages of completeness, some shiny, some rusty. Customers who did not mind waiting. “I gather it happened here? That last incident, when Hildred was… taken into custody?”

“Not here in the shop, no, but in this building. In Mr. Wilde’s rooms, upstairs.”

“Mr. Wilde – he was the man who died? Whom Hildred was supposed to have murdered?”

“He lived upstairs, yes.”

“May I see…? I’m trying to put it all together, his last days. How it happened.”

“I understand.” He rummaged in a drawer and brought out a key.

The stairs were steep, brown and narrow. Hawberk struggled awhile with the key before the door opened with a screech. “Reminds me of Wilde’s cat,” Hawberk said. “Savage creature, but he liked her.”

Mr. Wilde’s rooms were empty of visible life – bare bookshelves, a curious high desk and matching tall chair with a set of ladder-like rungs. Dust and nameless scraps lay on the floor. A signboard leaned against the wall. I turned my head sideways to read it. “Repairer of Reputations. What’s that?”

“Mr. Wilde was eccentric.”

Watery sunlight from the small-paned window drew a scintillation from something on the floor. I bent and extracted it from a crack between two boards. A scrap of paper lying nearby caught my eye, my own surname unlikely in this dreary place. “…only son of Hildred Castaigne and Edythe…” and, on the line below that, “…in the succession.”

I slipped the scrap into my pocket and examined the shiny object. Intricately cut facets made a small brilliance on my palm. I held it out to Hawberk. “What do you suppose this is?”

“It looks like a diamond. Couldn’t be real, though.” He looked up at me. “It might have come from that diadem.”

“Diadem? Did Mr. Wilde collect such things, as well as repairing reputations?”

“No. Mr. Castaigne brought it with him, that night.”

“My brother had a diadem with him?”

“Yes. Made to look like gold and diamonds. Couldn’t have been real, though. With everything that happened, I didn’t get a good look at it, but I supposed it had something to do with his interest in heraldry, royal symbols, all that. You didn’t know about it?”

“No!” The succession, I remembered. I looked at the diamond again. Real or paste? “So what happened to this diadem?”

Hawberk creased his brow and looked toward the window, where a fly buzzed against the panes. “I really don’t know. Perhaps the police took it away, as evidence.”

There was nothing more to say. The musty smell of the place, and the buzzing fly, were oppressive. “I’ve taken up enough of your time, Mr. Hawberk.”

But at the door of the shop, I paused. “Do you think my brother was insane?”

He examined the key to Wilde’s door, rubbing it with his thumb. “I really can’t say, Miss Castaigne. He didn’t seem so, all those years, but something happened to him, at the end.”

“Goodbye, Mr. Hawberk. And thank you for being kind to Hildred. He loved your shop.”

 

Upon his removal from Dr. Archer’s care six months after his riding accident, Hildred had moved to the Benedick apartments on Washington Square. For an entire year, I had called on him every day, often tracking him down in Hawberk’s shop, where he went to listen to the music of metal on metal and lose himself in scintillations of light on the armour plates. Then the call of Paris and adventure had grown too strong for me to ignore. An opportunity presented itself, and I took it, telling myself that Hildred was well again, even if other interests had supplanted his former pastimes of fishing, yachting and riding. And our cousin Louis was near enough to keep an eye on him.

I was gone for more than three years – golden years! They fled by so quickly, until Louis’s telegram came. “Hildred dead in asylum for insane.” By the time I arrived in New York City, Louis too was far away. His regiment had been posted to San Francisco. He had married Constance Hawberk and departed. Was I unjust in suspecting him of undue haste? No matter – he was only a cousin. I was Hildred’s sister.

The concierge at the Benedick admitted me quite readily when I identified myself. I felt a moment of dread before unlocking the door to Hildred’s rooms, anticipating sorrow at the sight of his possessions bereft of his presence. But a surprise greeted me instead – the rooms were empty. Not only of Hildred, but of furniture, books, carpets and ornaments. Only the curtains remained, their velvet folds hanging mutely, as though in helpless apology.

No books on the shelves. No shelves! No papers on the desk. No desk! No clothes in the wardrobe. No wardrobe! Where was everything? The concierge hadn’t said anything about this removal. The rooms were still Hildred Castaigne’s. He was gone, but his possessions should have remained.

I returned to the sitting-room and took the tour again. Study, bedroom, sitting-room. Back to the study, floors creaking, my steps echoing. He was gone. Gone completely. His mortal remains rested in our family’s cemetery plot. I had hoped to capture something of his spirit here, in the last place he had lived. But it was an empty shell.

The concierge was still in his office. “Can you tell me who removed Mr. Castaigne’s possessions? And when?”

“Not exactly, Miss. Some men came, a couple of weeks ago. Said they had the family’s permission.”

“I am his family. His sister. I gave no permission. And a couple of weeks ago I was still in Paris.”

He shrugged. “Well, that’s what they said. And where? I think I heard them say Madison Avenue.”

My heart sank. Madison Avenue was a long street. I pulled my wallet from my handbag and held out several dollars. “Please, can you remember anything else?”

The man took the currency and counted it. “Maybe,” he said, smirking. “Make it an even ten and we’ll see.”

I produced two more dollars.

“Dr. John Archer,” he said.

 

Look for Part 2 tomorrow!

Two Scenes For The Solstice

Years ago, I wrote a couple of seasonal flash fictions; well, they’re really the same story told in two different styles. They were prototypes for a scene in my novel Hunting the Phoenix.

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I

Winter Solstice In the House of the Phoenix

(An Alchemical Allusion)

Summoned at last, I go, wrapped in my cloak of midnight velvet. I bring gifts for the household, and a gift for the chance-met stranger, honouring the ancient law. For the keeper of the door, a distillation of rainbows in a fiery spirit; for his goodwife, the song of a bird caught in crystal. For the stranger, the warmth of my hearth fire in a vessel of amber. For the alchemist, a book of secret wisdom. And for the master of the house, the blind physician, a golden flower, nourished with heart’s blood and watered with my tears.

My footsteps ring on the stones as I approach him. He is not so large as I had imagined, and older, his face lined with years and sorrows, his hair more silver than gold. His clothing is dark and plain against the splendour of the company, but he wears gold spectacles with lenses of emerald. He accepts my gift, smiling as I place it in his hands.

We file in procession to the place of the fire. One by one, our torches are extinguished and we stand together in darkness. From the silence his voice speaks and we answer, chanting the ancient words of faith and hope. Then comes a red glow, faint but strengthening, until by its radiance we see him again, and rekindle our torches from his glory.

Up and up, from the depths to the highest tower we climb, he before us, the vessel of flame, lighting the lamps anew, and the fire at the heart of the house. In the dance of new light we go singing to the feast, to lay our cares aside and come together in joy. For among us is the one who has died and lives again, radiant, rejoicing until the night ends in the red dawn of the new sun.

 

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II

Last Greeting From Kingsport

I got an invite to a shindig last night, at Phoenix House, up on the hill. I wore my best black velvet duds. Good thing, ’cause everyone was togged to the nines. I brought presents, like you’re supposed to: rainbow liqueur for the guy at the door, crystal chimes for his missus, and a glowing coal in a brass pot to keep the beggar warm. For the old alchemist up there, a book of secret mumbo-jumbo; and for the man himself, that doctor folks say is blind, I brought my golden flower, the one that took seven years to bloom and nearly killed me.

He’s not such a big guy up close – kind of old and dressed plain, except for those emerald specs. I think he liked my present, but who knows? “A kindred spirit,” he said. “You will join us here before long.” And he smiled.

Then the lights went out and we all got torches and trooped down to the cellar. We doused our torches and stood by the rocks in the dark, breathing. Some party this is, I was thinking, when he started to sing and we all joined in, even me, who didn’t think I knew the words. After a while there came a little glow. It got stronger, until it was like a star in his hands, and we lit our torches from it.

We went up and up, into every room, lighting candles and lamps. Then the party – mountains of food and rivers of drink, like I never saw in my life. What a night! Music and singing and dancing until the sun came up, all new and red. He was everywhere with us, the wildest of all. (I don’t think he’s really blind, you know).

Merry Christmas to you and yours, and I hope the New Year is a good one. But I’m going back up there now, and I don’t know when I’ll be back.

Fire adj2

Experimenting With Novelty: A New Theme

When I am happy with something, and it’s working well, I don’t change it. I had the same theme for this blog since 2010 — the Light theme. I liked its elegant simplicity but eventually wanted more flexibility in the way my content is displayed. The number of themes offered by WordPress was overwhelming, so it took  me a while to find one that suits me. Strangely enough, it’s called Suits.

I plan to post more short stories in the next few months, so watch that space!

In the meantime, here is a seasonably suitable scene from the garden.

A favourite scene in the back garden

A favourite scene in the back garden