Come one, come all and see: Vampyres, Wytches, Daemons and Ghouls!
"Where do they come from? The dust. Where do they go? The grave. Does blood stir their veins? No. What ticks in their head? The worm. What hears with their ear? The abyss. They sift the human storm for souls, eat the flesh of reason, fill tombs with sinners. Such are the autumn people.”
-Ray Bradbury, "Something Wicked This Way Comes"
In the midst of the 20th century most learned and responsible parties in America came to agree that the country was in need of an established Authority to Police the Moral Climate, to ensure that dangerous and potentially subversive ideas did not pollute impressionable minds.
It started small: In 1954 they outlawed the horror comics. No more “Tales from the Crypt” or “Haunt of Fear” or even “Weird Fantasy” for the kiddies. That sort of thing just wasn’t healthy for developing young minds, they said. Experts assured the public that children should not be pushed into any unhealthy preoccupation with the macabre, and one look at just the covers of the relevant publications assured the same public that it was so.
Before long a scrutinizing eye fell on all children’s entertainment: Was it really good for kids to grow up with these fairy stories about talking animals and cannibalistic giants? Was it healthy for them to learn about magic and mysticism that didn't exist, about strange planets and strange powers that were never and would never be real? In time, the authorities ran the Brothers Grimm and the Arabian Nights from the libraries, evicted Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers from cinemas, and even sent Santa Claus off on his final sleigh ride.
Naturally it was only a matter of time before the content of media for grown-ups was called into question too. After all, this was a rational age and we were rational people, what need had we for these fantasies, these nightmares and daydreams, these things that never were and never would be? If we were to raise rational children, we must be rational adults. So they shut the Gothicism of Walpole and Radcliffe up in its crypt for the last time and exorcised the haunts of Poe and Blackwood and Lovecraft. Dickens’ great works were still held in esteem, but no one anymore remembered knew the name of Ebenezer Scrooge. Stage groups still performed “King Lear," but “Macbeth” with its witches and “Hamlet” with its ghost were quietly retired. After Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” shocked and appalled the world in ‘68 most countries banned horror films outright. The US Attorney General's office eventually dropped all charges against Romero on the condition that he never release a film in the States again.
In short, it was an Age of Reason to end all ages. And it was on a clear autumn day (October, to be precise, two days before Halloween, a celebration now restricted entirely to commercial and pop cultural relevance) that one particular student of Reason decided that the library was too stuffy that afternoon and opted for a convenient park bench as the ideal place for his studies, thus embarking on a series of events that would alter the course of his entire life. He sat with a stack of reference materials on the left and his lunch on the right, happily pouring over significant statistical anomalies of price indices (1974-1976) when he felt an odd prickling at the back of his neck.
We might call such a feeling “the creeps” but Murphy (as he was called), a man who, well into his 20s, had never heard a ghost story and would not understand one were it told to him, a man who considered crumbling old cemeteries by moonlight only a quaint shortcut home and who, upon seeing the vacant façade of a Victorian mansion bedecked with cobwebs, overgrown with strangling vines, and beset with the clinging atmosphere of ennui, would think nothing more of it than what a shame it was that the old place should bring down everyone else’s property values, a man for whom a bone-chilling draft and the faint, haunting sound of sobbing or laughter from some abandoned wing of the building was nothing more than cause to question the quality of the insulation and the acoustical properties of the structure, was entirely unable to identify the sensation that now troubled him, much less speculate about what it might mean.
It was then that Murphy realized he was not alone. A rather fetching young woman had taken up residence on the other side of the bench, right across the battlement formed by his books, and indeed, she had put one lily-white hand, complete with its manicured and scarlet-painted nails, right on the cover of the topmost edition, the very one Murphy was reaching for when the unknown and unknowable sensation seized him, and she was mouthing the title to herself, her ruby-red lips forming each syllable with such concentrated earnestness that Murphy could not help but stare. She noticed and, rather than be offended, smiled at him. Murphy spilled his thermos in reply, but she either did not notice or chose not to say anything about it. Instead she simply said, “Good afternoon."
“Um, yes,” said Murphy. He brushed his bangs out of his eyes to get a better look at her. She was a curious figure, with her black and red lace dress and antique riding cloak, but she was also beautiful, so Murphy decided he did not mind her strange attire. “Quite a day, actually. Perfect for studies, don’t you think?”
“Perhaps,” said the woman. Her name, she said, was Shelley. Murphy noticed she had a book of her own and asked what she was studying. He did not recognize the title: “Vathek”. Perhaps she was a linguist? “Oh, this?” she said, waving the volume in front of his face when he asked about it. “Nothing that would interest you.”
Something in her tone nagged Murphy. For a moment he found himself incensed, furious in fact, as though she had impugned his taste. He took a moment to calm down and insisted, as politely as he could, that he was as intellectually curious as they came, and that there was no subject that wouldn’t interest him at least a little. Shelley shrugged and he detected some slight movement of her arched eyebrows, though he could not imagine what it meant. "I guess you could say it's a book about the dead," she replied.
"Are you studying forensics?"
"It's about strange noises in empty rooms, and about dark corners that have never seen light. It's about madmen and their mad ideas, and about wicked secrets and poison dreams and the turgid decadence of people who no longer care. It's about carnivals and hallucinatory circuses and kaleidoscopes of terror and exhilaration. About claws and pale yellow eyes, about men who becomes wolves and wolves who become men and women who can see the future, and old crypts with skeletal grey things stirring underneath them, about torture chambers and lost dungeons and tombs that are older than the human race, about the mark of fangs in flesh and about blood dappling white lace while a voice gasps, helpless and strangled, and about high arches and higher towers and hidden rooms and locked cellars with awful things inside them, about houses where gargoyles laugh and the clocks strike thirteen and bad flesh planted in the garden grows into ill weeds under orphaned grey skies with pale moons and smothering fogs."
She kept her eyes on her book as she talked. Murphy, for the life of him, had no idea what she was talking about, and couldn't even imagine what subject she was majoring in. Psychology, maybe? "Well, it sounds very interesting," he managed.
"To the right person," said Shelley. She put the book down and took Murphy by the hand. His glasses fogged immediately. "Do you want to come with me?" she said.
"Um," said Murphy. His tongue seemed to be sticking to the roof of his mouth. "Come where?"
"There's a place I want to show you," Shelley said, standing and pulling him by the hand. He let her draw him to his feet and lead him along, abandoning his books. The park was quiet and vacant, and a curious mist had settled over everything, enveloping the bare branches of the skeletal trees; Murphy thought nothing of this except to wonder if there was some unusual microclimate in this part of the city that he was not aware of.
"Where are we going?" he said.
"To a special place. It's a kind of an attraction," Shelley told him.
"Like a museum?"
"A museum of ideas."
Murphy followed her over a hill and down a short path and across a bridge and a brook he did not remember ever seeing before, and finally they came to a lonely road choked with weeds where old wheel ruts were worn so deep they would take five more generations to disappear, and it was here that Murphy discovered the strangest-looking structure he had ever set eyes on. It took him a moment to realize that it was a great building on wheels, the sort common to traveling carnivals and sideshows (or so he imagined; such things were rarely seen these days), but it was decorated in the most curious fashion, painted to resemble an old manse in serious need of repair, a place of cracked windows and falling roofs and gardens dead and bare. He wondered why anyone would mock up a building in such a fashion. Murphy never really understood art; perhaps it was a comment on the inadequacy of local building codes?
But it was the people, if one could call them that, who inhabited this mock building that puzzled him the most; those faces painted in the false windows, those figures that lurked in the illustrated doors, those shadows on the walls, what were these things? He had no words to describe them. Some seemed to be ill; men and women with pale and drawn features, and yet they did not appear to be ailing. Indeed, they cackled and cavorted in a manner that Murphy could make no sense of. And some of these figures corresponded to nothing he could identify at all: people with the features of animals, and others who appeared to be under the effect of some optical illusion that made them seem to disappear, and certain beasts with no definite taxology that he could reference. In one corner of the painting there rested many assembled human skeletons (in quite unsanitary conditions, he noted), and yet these lifeless bones were depicted in the postures of living men, in such a mean as bones alone could never affect. What was the meaning of this?
One door in the painted façade was genuine and opened into the structure, and over it there hung a sign in red letters: "Come and see: Vampyres, Wytches, Daemons and Ghouls!" He recognized none of the words.
"What a curious façade," Murphy said. "Are we meant to go in?"
"Oh yes," said Shelley. She sounded cheerful. Murphy had little confidence that this oddball building would offer anything to enhance his studies, but her obvious enthusiasm cheered him up a little. Perhaps this establishment had more to offer than meets the eye.
Following Shelley inside, he found himself in a lobby not unlike that of a theater, with high ceiling and high arches and an unkempt look. The walls were black and the floor was carpeted in red. An old woman sat in the ticket booth. She was the most fantastically ugly thing that Murphy had ever seen, a horse-faced crone with an eye patch, a bald head under a scarlet bandana, rotten teeth in her mouth, a hooked noise, green-tinged skin, and pointed ears. She was covered in brass jewelry that jingled and jangled when she moved.
The old woman's gnarled fingers laid curious-looking playing cards on the counter. She waved one in front of Murphy and said, in a voice thick with phlegm, "Which one will be yours, do you think? The Hanged Man? The Magician? Or perhaps…" She stuck a card in his face. Murphy had to stop and clean his glasses before he could see the picture or read the inscription on it: The Fool.
"How droll," he said. "What is it that you're playing at? Some kind of solitaire?" The old woman just clucked her tongue.
"The way you walk will be thorny," she said. "I see death in your future."
Murphy shrugged. "Death is in everyone's future," he said. The old woman cackled so hard she almost fell off her stool. Murphy eyed her curiously.
"Murphy," said Shelley, sliding up next to him, "what do you think of Madame Sosostros?" She indicated the old woman. Murphy shrugged.
"She seems rude," he said. "And frightfully ugly. Aren't the Social Welfare Board supposed to remove such unfortunates?"
"Nothing else?" said Shelley. "Doesn't she frighten you?"
"Well of course not," said Murphy. "She's just an old crone with a queer deck of cards."
Madame Sosostros seemed to think this was funnier still and her laughter nearly split her in half. Then she pushed a button on the counter and the doors behind her swung open into a dark, yawning hallway. "You go this way," the old woman said. Murphy peered in.
"Is this the way to the attraction?" he said.
"Oh yes," said Madame Sosostros, giggling, "you'll find much to attract you in there."
Murphy approached but realized Shelley was not following. "I go another way," she said.
"Will I see you on the other side?" asked Murphy. Shelley smiled.
"I do imagine you will," she replied.
It was not until he went through the door that Murphy wondered how she knew his name. He was sure he never mentioned it to her. But then the door snapped shut behind him, and he was alone, in the dark.
Murphy was in a long corridor lit by candle sconces. The dark paneling scarcely reflected any illumination, but in the half-light he could make out frescoes on the walls of strange, pale people with dark eyes. Such unflattering representations, he thought, examining one of a brittle crone with pronounced teeth looming over the lurid orange illumination of a cooking pot. I certainly hope they did not pay the painter much.
Murphy stumbled several times in the dark. His ears perked up; music as coming from down the hall. Yes, someone was playing a piano. He recognized the piece: Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Well, that's an odd selection, he thought. I'm sure it's not appropriate for entertaining guests. But then, they probably don't realize that I'm here. He followed the ghastly tune to a parlor of sorts, poorly lit and crowded with antique furniture (all in need of a good dusting, thought Murphy, noting the cobwebs clinging to the rafters). A great fireplace cast hellish light over everything.
A figure shrouded in a black cloak hunched over the piano, shoulders jumping up and down with the force of the playing. So lost was the musician in the wild tune that Murphy cleared his throat three times without being noticed and then finally elected to tap the player on the shoulder. The musician cried out and turned.
"Terribly sorry to interrupt," said Murphy. "It's just I seem to be…well, in truth, I don't know what I'm doing right now, but whatever it is I'm doing it right here."
"My word!" said the player, "You frightened me." She stood up, for now Murphy could properly see that the musician was a woman; a very fetching woman at that, pale and blonde and green-eyed and pale and well-dressed and pale (She really needs more sun, thought Murphy). She seemed a bit old-fashioned in that antique dress and corset, but the effect was not displeasing. She gathered her skirts up.
"I did not hear you come in," she said. "We don't get many visitors here. Anymore…"
"I should think not," said Murphy. "I don't mean to be rude, but it's a very strange…house? Attraction? I'm not even really sure. I mean, it's probably nice if you've a predilection for…whatever it is?" Nervous, his fingers wandered over the nearby end table, which for some reason was decorated with small bones and old scalpels. It seemed very unsanitary to him.
"It's awful," said the pale woman. "Every minute is torment. But we cannot leave, my sisters and I, no, we can never leave…"
"Tough lease, is it? Binding?"
"We can never leave," the woman said again. She appeared to be largely talking to herself. She went to the mantle, where a painting of a scowling man loomed. "We're cursed to remain here forevermore until the baron returns from the war. That is the curse he laid on us as the price of our disobedience. But he died, you see. So we'll be here forever."
"Ah, well, if your landlord is dead and the title hasn't changed hands, that means that the terms of the original lease—"
"So lonely here, all by ourselves," said the woman, not appearing to listen. "So very many long nights…but now you've come!" She all but ran to him, eyes shining, taking him by the hand; her fingers were very cold but Murphy did not want to pull away. "It's so good to see a living human being again. You're so warm…"
"Ah, yes, well, I'm very glad to make your acquaintance, Miss…?"
"Victoria; Lady Victoria Gallows. Oh, come, you must meet my sisters."
"If I must?"
"Yes, oh yes, they'll be so excited; it's been ages since we've fed!"
"I get that same feeling around lunchtime myself. I'm afraid I left my lunch back in the park though; I don't mean to be an imposition, but do you have any repast handy?"
"So warm and alive; we'll feed until we burst!"
"Well if you're already planning a large lunch then I'll just sit in, if it's all the same."
Victoria pulled Murphy along, down another dark corridor (They really ought to just install new wiring and be done with it, thought Murphy) to a dining hall. Here a table that could seat a dozen was laid with expensive china and silver, but it seemed no one had eaten here for some time, as the dishes were empty except for dust and cobwebs. Leering animal heads decorated the walls, staring with glass eyes. Two women in flowing white gowns were seated, staring at each other with dull, painted eyes until Murphy and Victoria entered, at which point they leapt to their feet.
"A man!" they both said at once.
"Yes!" said Victoria. They all smiled in unison, showing row after row of small, white teeth. Murphy felt cheerful in spite of the gloomy surroundings; these women were such enthusiastic hosts. They sat him at the head of the table, tittering amongst each other; they couldn't seem to stop touching him, their pale fingers running over his hands, his arms, his shoulders, as if checking to see if he was real.
"Thank you very much for having me, ladies," he said. "I must say, I didn't know quite what to expect when I was shown into this establishment, but it's very refreshing to encounter such friendly service."
"It's been so long…" said one of the women; she had dark bags under her eyes that didn't look at all healthy.
"Hold him still," said the other, and Victoria slid an arm around his neck, choking him a bit.
"Pardon me?" he said. "That's rather uncomfortable. If you don't mind—"
"Who gets to carve?" said one of the sisters.
"I"ll do it!" said the other, snatching a knife off the table; though old, it gleamed in the flickering candlelight. Thunder boomed overhead.
"You know Miss, that appears very unsafe…"
"We're so sorry about this," whispered Victoria. "It's just been too long. I promise it'll be fast and painless."
"Give me his wrist!"
"Now wait a minute…"
"Hold him still!"
"Hold on just a minute, ladies, I think there's been some kind of—"
Murphy struggled to his feet, throwing off Victoria. He backed away from the table; the sisters closed on him, hands outstretched, eyes wide, a keening moan rising up from the three of them. Murphy scrambled away, looking for any way out; they were between him and the door he came in, so he backed toward the door on the opposite side.
"Um, terribly sorry ladies…" He stumbled over the corner of a bureau. "Just realized I must be going…" He fumbled behind him for the doorknob, hoping it wasn't locked. "Thanks you for the lovely afternoon, really must do this again sometime…" Where was it, where was it? "But I'm afraid something very important has just come up…" His hand touched brass. "Elsewhere!"
Fangs sprang from the women's mouths and they all dived at him, but Murphy pulled open the door, darted through it, slammed it behind him and braced his back against it. The women beat on the other side, screaming and wailing, but the door was heavy and Murphy put all his strength against it. Eventually the commotion died down and Murphy seemed to be alone; he stopped to mop his forehead with a pocket handkerchief.
"Very, very strange accommodations," he said.
And where was he now? A corridor all of stone, lit by guttering torches that almost certainly were not in line with the fire code. The hall was lined with queer wooden doors, each set with barred windows and heavy rings instead of knobs. Hmmm. Murphy knocked at one, curious. "Hello?" he said. The door opened one creaking bit at a time. Murphy was face to face with a strange figure, a man dressed as some kind of religious recluse in an old robe, barefoot and with a shaved head. He must have been terribly ill, because his eyes were yellow, and his skin so pale that Murphy could see the tracks of blue veins under the surface. The monk stood slack-jawed, staring at Murphy with unblinking eyes, eyes full of madness and desolation.
"Hello there!" said Murphy. The monk said nothing.
"I'm sorry to interrupt you at whatever it is you were doing in there. My, what a lovely little, um, cell you have. You seem to have hung that crucifix upside down though, did you know? Well, anyway, I'm really just hoping to find the way out of, well, wherever I am. You see, I was having lunch with these three charming young women and then, well, I'm not really sure what went wrong, but somehow or another—say, could you back up a few steps? I'm afraid you're somewhat violating my personal space."
The monk kept coming forward one staggering step at a time. Murphy backed away. The cell door behind him opened and another monk came into the corridor. Then the doors opened on all sides. Murphy looked around the circle of barefoot, pale-faced figures. "Yes, well, as I was saying, I have a class in half an hour, so if you could just direct me to…you know, I think I see a door a little further down, I'll just show myself out. Excuse me. Pardon me. Excuse me, excuse me, I need to get…that is…hey, let go! Now don't rip this jacket, it was a gift! Hey, hey!"
Murphy pushed against the throng, barreling through them. He grabbed a torch off the wall, waving it at the mob, forcing them back; the flames reflected off their yellow eyes. He inched down the corridor, pushing the brand at the monks anytime they got too close. The door he was heading toward was set partially in the floor, like a cellar door, and he kicked it open with one foot (rather ruining the polish on his wingtips), and then, with one last threatening thrust of the torch, leapt down the cellar stairs, securing the door behind him. He expected another tug-of-war, but the monks did not seem interested in getting the door open once it was shut. He heard their shuffling footsteps on the other side, but that was all.
"What is wrong with the people here?" Murphy said, but no one was around to answer.
He stopped to catch his breath, polishing his glasses on the hem of his shirt. Where in the world was he now? He put his glasses back on and confronted a ghastly sight: a skeletal corpse, mummified flesh stretched tight across ancient bones, leering at him from a cul-de-sac, its jaw horrifyingly ajar. More aged bodies peered from every nook and cranny in this underground chamber, bleached bones and tattered winding sheets stacked high, bearing the distinct odor of black mold and rot. Crooked limbs seemed to reach, grasping, from antique coffins, and every empty skull in the room was turned toward Murphy, watching him with sightless eye sockets. A blast of cold air and a sound like the sighs of the damned ruffled his hair.
Murphy sighed with relief. "Oh good," he said, "it's just a crypt."
He found a dry spot on the floor between two standing mummies and sat down. What better place than this to catch his breath? After those strange women and oddball religious ascetics, Murphy could imagine nothing safer to keep him company than this collection of old bones. He checked the time. "I guess I'll be missing class today. I hope I can find my way out of here in time still make a drink with the fellows at the club?" Water dripped from somewhere nearby. "Well, at least one room in this place has a relaxing atmosphere."
Somewhere in the crypt, something stirred.
Shelley waited at the rear entrance. It was almost two hours before she started to worry and wondered if, just maybe, he wasn't going to be able to manage himself, but then the exit hatch opened and out tumbled Murphy, torn, ragged, bloodied, beaten, and shaking with fear. His glasses were broken and he seemed to have lost one of his shoes. He was pale and drawn, and his teeth chattered audibly. It took him some time to stand up. Shelley pursed her lips.
"Oh, you poor thing," she said. "I guess they gave you a really rough time in there, didn’t they?"
"Madam," Murphy said, when he could finally speak. "I must insist that you call the police."
Shelley made her eyes wide. "Whatever for?"
"Because you've tried to murder me," Murphy said. "You and your…sideshow accomplices."
Shelley clucked her tongue. "Nonsense! Why, it's all in good fun. They were just trying to scare you."
"Fun?" said Murphy, his voice going shrill. He was standing now, or rather, leaning on the wall, since he could not manage to remain truly upright on his own. "Does this look like the product of fun?"
Clara shrugged. "It's not for everyone, I guess. But certainly no one tried to murder you."
"Certainly they did!"
"Then why are you still alive?"
"I…" Murphy paused. He scratched his head and tried to adjust his glasses, though they were quite beyond his help at this point. "But I saw things in there! Terrible things! Things that…don't even make sense…"
"Illusion," said Shelley, with a carefree gesture. "Stagecraft and a little showmanship. These people are actors, you know, that's what they do; actors and performers, all perfectly ordinary once you get past the fine details."
Murphy hesitated. "If you're sure…?"
"Just a stage show, nothing more," Shelley said, patting him on the arm. "And I'm terribly sorry for the frightful time you had. We all just got carried away. We don’t get as many visitors anymore as we used to."
"I can imagine!" said Murphy. "And I still don't understand: What is this place, even?"
"Well, it's a haunted house, if you like."
"I don't like, actually. It's that word, 'haunted,' I don't like it at all. I don't even know what it means but I don't like it!"
"They used to have them all the time, back before the Moral Climate laws. I thought you would like it, you being so studious and all. It's a cultural fossil, a one-of-a-kind study, don't you think?"
"Hmph," said Murphy. He brooded. It was getting dark out now, and he'd lost a whole day. On top of that, he'd lost a perfectly good shoe in there, and his other was now useless on its own. And he had a terrible headache.
Shelley put her hand on his arm again. "I really am sorry," she said again. "Let me make it up to you? I'll make you dinner."
"Um…" said Murphy. A moment ago he would have said he'd rather eat his hat than spend any more time with this woman, but she was looking at him in a distinctly imploring manner. And he no longer had his hat anyway, it having been stolen by an oddly scaly gentleman who resided in a heated pool four rooms back…
Shelley smiled wide and arched her black eyebrows at him. "Please? I've done so much to spoil your evening, let me do just this one little thing now."
"Well…" said Murphy. And with that she was leading him by the hand, away from the spookhouse and toward a little cottage that she said was just hers, inherited from her grandmother, the original owner of the haunted house attraction, who had died the previous Halloween. "It's just me here now," she said, hanging her antique riding cape on the wall after they entered. "It gets very lonely sometimes."
"Well, what about your…friends?"
"Oh, I don't see much of them when the spookhouse is closed. They…keep to themselves."
"They certainly don't seem like sociable types." Murphy was at the mirror over the mantle, trying to clean himself up. Shelley started a blaze in the old fireplace. The orange light reflected in her eyes. For reasons he couldn't possibly understand, Murphy shivered. "Quite a thing, that 'spookhouse' of yours. It made me feel…it made me feel…I don't even know the word for it…"
"They took the word away," Shelley said. "Made it illegal, buried it, locked it up. But you can't get rid of the feeling, even if there is no word for it."
She caught his hands in hers, twining their fingers together. "Murphy," she said, "I have a confession."
"I brought you here for dinner, but…"
"I don't actually have any food in the house."
Murphy frowned. "Then why—"
She pulled his face down to hers for a kiss. She pulled him down so far, so fast that he almost fell over; as it was he ended up balanced on one foot and his stray leg kicked in the air like a tiny seizure as Shelley's reddest of red lips touched his and her warm tongue darted in and out of his mouth. His glasses, or rather, what was left of his glasses, fogged up again, and he had to take them off and set them on the mantle or be completely blinded. Her lacquered nails raked his chest; his clothes being in a shambles already, she made short work of undressing him (really she just put his outfit out of its misery, more or less). While her hands pulled at his belt her soft white fingers glancing against his thighs in a way that felt distinctly dangerous. She asked in a breathless voice:
"Murphy, when you thought you were going to die today, how did it make you feel?"
"Um…" Murphy said. "Displeased?"
She yanked his belt off (it snapped in half) and his trousers dropped. She pushed him once and he fell over, landing in a sitting position on the couch. She straddled him, kissing him again, with one hand holding his face and the other raking his hair. There was a scent about her; not perfume or oil of any kind, but a scent nonetheless, the sort that crept up into Murphy's head and forced him to think illogical things. Her hair spilled around him like a curtain on either side.
"Displeased?" Shelley said between gasping kisses. "Is that all?"
"Um, anxious. Somewhat ill. Very confused?"
She ripped off her own blouse, sending buttons flying (one bounced with an audible -tick- off the fireplace), and then struggled with the laces of her corset. "Is that all?" she said, an unmistakable edge to her voice. Murphy stared at her bobbling cleavage as if he were hypnotized.
"Disappointed. Horrified. Overwhelmed." He was babbling now. The corset came off and she was revealed in all of her glory, the firelight reflecting orange and yellow on her gloriously naked body. Murphy swallowed, unable to speak for a moment, and then he blurted out: "Ashamed!"
Shelley seized on the word. "Ashamed? Why? Of what?" While she talked she planted eager kisses along the ridge of his ear and the side of his neck. Her pearly white teeth grazed him now and then and he rolled his eyes and squirmed in his seat. Her hot body felt slippery in his arms, already wearing a sheen of sweat.
"Ashamed because…I felt like I was going to die without knowing anything important about life."
She slithered down the front of him like a snake, pausing with her mouth over his nipple, lashing him with her tongue and then biting. He yelped and pressed back into the aging upholstery.
"Why did you think you knew nothing?" Shelley said, her mouth full of his flesh.
"I don't know," Murphy said. He was beginning to sweat in spite of the chill in the room. His erection was throbbing so much that it hurt. "I guess I never really thought that I could die. Not soon, anyway. I never gave it any thought. So I never had any incentive to live."
Shelley's hair spilled across Murphy's lap, the strands of it tickling him. She kissed him all over, her mouth trailing wet marks, and then she slithered her tongue down the underside of his cock. He thrashed a little at the sensation. She blew on it and he jumped. Her lips formed themselves against his testicles and the tip of her tongue tickled him them. He dug his fingers into the furniture's grips.
"And now?" Shelley said, just before she gulped his cock into her mouth and down her throat, sliding him in and out with expert precision. The bobbing motion of her head crowded out his view of the flickering fireplace every few seconds.
"Now?" Murphy said. It was increasingly difficult to talk. "Now I feel…I don't know what I feel. There's a word for it…"
Actually, Murphy was not at all sure there was a word for the sensation of Shelley's throat muscles pushing down on the ridge of his cock, nor for the counter-sensation as she slowly slid him back out, ending with an audible, wet pop made by her perfect lips. In the light of the fire her eyes seemed to glow as she looked up at him.
"There's a word for it, but I don't know what it is…"
Shelley climbed back up onto his lap, settling down, sliding his wet cock along the inside of her leg as she did. She covered his face with kisses and then whispered against his lips: "Fear." She drew the syllable out as long as she could. "The word for it is: fear." She pushed down on him, letting him penetrate her, her wetness easing his way. His head rolled to one side. She bit his lip hard enough to draw blood, then combed her fingers through his hair again, leaning in next to his ear. "It's not the fear of the momentary danger. It's the real and honest knowledge of your own mortality. To be afraid is to want to live better. That's what you want now, isn't it?"
She ground her ass against his lap, wiggling it around and around and, all the while, turning him over inside of her in a tight circle. She was positively dripping. Shelley braced her hands on his shoulders, her nails leaving bright red crescents in his skin, and using his body as leverage she lifted herself up and dropped herself down, only half an inch but enough to set a straining pressure inside him. Murphy gripped the couch so tightly he thought it might tear apart underneath him. Shelley rose and fell again, this time also pushing forward, so that her breasts bounced off of his bare chest. The springs of the old couch groaned in protest. Shelley threw her arms around Murphy's neck, lacing them together, her head back so that her naked white throat was exposed to his mouth. Her eyes rolled back and she mouthed her words in silent half-gasps, now quite beyond Murphy's capacity to hear or interpret. Not that it mattered; he understood what her body was saying perfectly well.
The pumping, thrusting, twisting up and down gyration of their coupling went on until the fire began to gutter and die. Eventually they half-fell, half-sprawled off the couch and onto the floor, Shelley underneath, her legs wrapped around him, Murphy's body bent over hers like a bow, rising and falling with his heated, insistent motion. Blind without his glasses, Shelley was a vague, frantically moving shape underneath him. Droplets of sweat ran tracks down his chest and sides and the aching pressure inside of him was swelling up more and more. He'd clamped down on it in the beginning, worried about disappointing her with a brief showing, but now the insistence of his body was too much to ignore. It started with spasm, then with a spurt, then a few more seconds delay, half a minute's coaxing by the inner workings of her body, and then he was bursting into her, her naked, shaking body ready to receive him, he releasing again and again until he collapsed, exhausted, naked and spent over her. She signified her satisfaction with a noise that was all M's and turned to lace him up in her arms as they lay together there on the floor.
Murphy's heart was racing and his brain burned; the anxious, uncertain edge of fear that had nagged at him was gone, exorcised by sex, but something about it lingered, like a hangover. He felt like hiding, though from what and for what reason he did not know. He was convinced now that the whole day, even this, must be a dream, or a delusion, but he accepted the subjective reality of it, presuming he had no choice. He watched the fire die. Shelley muttered something as she looked into the smoldering ashes on the hearth: "'Each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor…'"
Murphy repeated the words, mumbling them under his breath. He didn't know what they meant, but they sounded good. From across the room, a windowpane rattled. "I think I left the windows unlatched," Shelley said. "Can you go check to make sure the wind doesn't blow them open?"
Murphy went to the windows; they took up one entire wall, hidden behind some particularly heavy curtains. He pulled the cord and the curtains sprang open. He looked up. He blinked, not sure what he was seeing. He fumbled to put his broken glasses on, and then looked again. "Dear mercy!" he cried.
"What is it?" said Shelley, from across the room.
"I…don't know!" said Murphy, choking. On the opposite side of the glass was a gray, haggard woman whose silver hair floated around her head, beady red eyes pinning Murphy where he stood as her claw-like fingernails scratched the glass. She hovered a foot off the ground, her tattered garments swirling around her. She laughed and beat her head against the window, then gibbered and howled. Shelley sat up and looked, then smiled.
"Oh!" she said, "It's Grandma!"
Murphy stumbled away. "You said she was dead?"
"Yes," said Shelley, "she certainly is!"
And she wasn't alone: There, pressed to the glass as well, were the pale, fanged women in white, and next to them, the mad monks with their yellow eyes, and behind them the living corpses from the crypt, and the scaled, gilled man from the pools, and the great shadowy black thing with wings like a bat, and the pale white things that gnaw bones at the midnight hour, and the horrible old woman with her fortune-telling cards and the things with the slithery arms and the man in the mask and the skeletal women and the one who was all stitched together and the dark, creeping, leaping, crawling, squirming things from under the stairs, all of them, dear gods, all of them were there! Murphy screamed and covered his eyes, but he could still hear them, still hear the cackling and shrieking and howling and groaning, and then he heard the most terrifying thing of all: the window creaking open! He pushed it shut again, putting all his might into holding the portal against the weight of those unspeakable things fighting to get in!
Shelley watched him, amused, a sheet wrapped around her body. Though the fire was now completely out its flickering light was still in her eyes. Murphy pressed his back to the windows, struggling to hold it. He heard the scuffling of claws and the sound of panting breaths drawn through fangs. "What are they?" he said.
"The darkest parts of the world," said Shelley. "The things that live in the shadows where no one ever wants to look."
"But this is impossible!"
"Yes it is, and yet, here we are," said Shelley. "It wasn't always this way; once we had stories to keep them in line."
"I don't understand?" said Murphy. A horned thing with orange eyes grinned at him as it tried to slide one razor-thin claw between the window slats. Shelley shrugged.
"All they want is for people to be frightened of them," Shelley said. "It's the reason they exist. When we had ghost stories and horror films and haunted house carnival rides to be scared of they all stayed away, because they didn't have to come out to make people afraid. But that's all gone away now, and one by one they've started to come back. We built the spookhouse to hold them, but honestly, I don't know how many more we can take."
They were all pushing at once and Murphy's feet slid along the cabin floor. "But why me?" he said.
"You were here. You were as good as anyone else. And you needed to be made afraid. And now…" She shrugged. "Well, I don't know what they mean to do with you now. But I would guess it won't be pleasant."
The glass began to crack. A wolf's probing snout stuck in, hungry tongue lapping at Murphy through canine teeth.
"I really am sorry," said Shelley. "I wish there was some other way. But there's no one around anymore to write the books, the stories, the poems, and plays that they need."
Broken glass rained on Murphy and cold, slippery hands grabbed him. He screamed as pallid purple fingers tried to force their way into his mouth; he bit down, expelling them. The hooting, gibbering mob started breaking the lattice. A sharp fang nicked Murphy's ear, drawing blood. He closed his eyes and screamed as loud as he could:
"I'LL DO IT!"
They all stopped. The room went quiet. Shelley's eyes practically glowed. "Do what?" she said.
"I'll write the stories," said Murphy. "I'll write the books, the poems, the movies, all of it! I'll keep them away."
"I don't know if you can…" Shelley said, and the monsters stirred again.
"I can, I can!" said Murphy. "I'll write it and people will read it and they'll be scared again, and none of you will need to come back, I promise, I promise!"
"It's against the law. They'll try to arrest you."
"I don't care," Murphy said. Tears streamed down his face. "Please, just give me a chance. Just give me this one last chance…"
Shelley touched his cheek. Here eyes were like fire; it hurt to look at them.
"All right," she said. "Because you asked so nicely. One last chance…"
Murphy hunched over his desk, typewriter chattering under his fingers. He was unshaven and his hair was wild. The room was musty and dark, full of stacks of papers, stubby ends of candles, and a dozen rolling, empty bottles. His schoolmate read over Murphy's shoulder and frowned as he did his best not to touch anything in the room. He licked his dry lips before speaking. "What, um, exactly are you working on here, Murph?"
"Just a project," Murphy said. He seemed to have developed something like a stammer. "Yes, a project."
"I see," said the friend. He looked at the papers pasted onto the walls. "We haven't seen much of you at the club lately."
"They say you've dropped out."
"No time, no time," Murphy said. He pulled the finished sheet out, laid it on the others, and then began the next. His friend picked a stray page up and read it. His jaw dropped.
"Sweet Joseph, man, you can't write this! It's a felony!"
"No choice," said Murphy. His eyes were bleary and bloodshot. The visitor shook his head.
"Murph, Murph, Murph. I didn't want to believe that the rumors were true, but look at you! You've gone completely to pieces. Let's just…I say, let's just—now cut that out!" He clapped his hands over the keys. "Come on Murphy, listen to me. This stuff you're writing? It's no good. I mean, it's no good for you. Look at you man, you're a fright!"
Murphy seemed to find this funny; he giggled in an unwholesome way.
"Let's get you cleaned up," the visitor said. "Let's get you out of this room for a few hours. How about we go out on the town, like old times? Meet some girls."
Murphy giggled again and went back to writing. The visitor looked sad.
"It's not worth it," he said. "Whatever this…project is, it's not worth throwing your life away.
"It's worth it," said Murphy. "Believe me, it's worth it."
"Are you sure?"
Something rattled at the window lattice. Murphy froze, hair standing on end. The visitor glanced in the direction of the noise, but then it stopped.