There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Monday, July 4, 2022

Six stories from Screams from the Dark, Edited by Ellen Datlow (Tor Nightfire, 2022)

Readers who are unfamiliar with the anthology Screams from the Dark may prefer to read these notes only after reading the stories.





*   *   *



         "The British saw the Hudson as key to their strategy. If they could control it, they could split the colonies, divide and conquer them. As plans go, it wasn't a bad one. It failed because their army was defeated at Saratoga, which initiated a series of events leading to them losing all of the state down to the City, where they remained until the end of the war. Before news of the loss at Saratoga spread, the British had sent thirty ships sailing up the Hudson. There were a few thousand soldiers on them. The idea was for these men to meet up with the British forces marching south along the river from their presumed victory at Saratoga. On their way, the British ships would create a diversion and perhaps more. They got off to a promising start, destroying a couple of colonial forts on the lower Hudson, capturing one right across from West Point. A little bit below Wiltwyck, the fleet received word of the defeat at Saratoga. With this message, their mission became pointless. To say the least, they were not pleased. Since Wiltwyck was the closest settlement, they visited their displeasure on the city. First, they subjected what was then the state capital to bombardment by their ships' cannons. Last I heard, one of the older buildings uptown still has a cannonball lodged in its basement wall. Fortunately, the city's residents had gotten wind of the ships' approach and had largely abandoned it. Once the cannons were done, the fleet sent several landing boats full of soldiers to shore. Reports vary as to how many redcoats set foot on Wiltwyck Point, with some claiming six hundred, others a thousand, and others still more. For the purposes of this story, the exact number doesn't matter. What does is there were at minimum hundreds of them marching on the city, which was lightly defended, most of the able-bodied men off fighting. The British shot at the handful who showed up to confront them, then set fire to the city. Over three hundred buildings, houses, barns, businesses, and places of worship burned down. The soldiers retreated to their boats, returned to their ships, and sailed for Manhattan, thus concluding their final, spiteful military success in this part of the Hudson Valley.

     "Among the soldiers who came ashore that day was a captain, Amos Black. He brought with him a pair of diminutive figures, whom the other troops referred to as Captain Black's little gray fellows. They were part of a group of five such fellows under the captain's command. As soon as it had become clear to the British that the battle against the colonists was not going to be over soon, they had sent across the Atlantic for Black, who was housed with his gray fellows separately from the rest of his regiment. Upon their arrival in New York, the six of them were billeted in a repurposed barn not far from Harlem Heights. From there, they were deployed on select missions, most of which were secret. None of the regular soldiers cared for the captain and his associates.

     "As the British troops fired on Wiltwyck's defenders and set torch to its buildings, Black and his two companions kept to the rear. He was a striking figure, a small, narrow man dressed not in the scarlet and white of a regular soldier, but entirely in black, with the exception of an emerald neckerchief. It was as if he was wearing his name, the troops joked. Only when the British were climbing back into their boats did Black take action. Before joining the rest of the landing party, he turned to his undersized companions, uttered words no one could make out, and pointed at the burning city. The little gray fellows turned and sprinted toward it. According to one observer, they ran more like dogs, or wolves, than men.

     "In the following days, there were a series of terrible murders in and around Wiltwyck's smoldering remains. Men, women, children, old, young, all were victims. They were killed sorting through the charred wreckage of their homes and businesses. They died attempting to recover what vegetables were left in their fields. They met their end on the road out of Wiltwyck to Hurley, where the majority of the city's residents had relocated. These were savage acts, bodies torn open, entrails strewn around them. Popular suspicion fell on wild animals, a pack of wolves, drawn to the devastated city and made bold by its ruin. There were organs missing from some of the victims, but what was remarkable was the lack of any substantial amount of blood at the sites of the crimes, which pointed to creatures other than wolves. A couple of young men who had spied on Captain Black ordering his undersized companions to remain behind made the connection between those strange figures and the outbreak of murders. The young men—they were boys, really—assembled a group to locate the little gray fellows and put a halt to their attacks. Its numbers consisted of men too old, too young, and too unwell to fight in the Continental Army, as well as a pair of ministers and a widow who had assumed the running of her farm after her husband had been struck down by a British musket ball at the Battle of Long Island.

     "Together, these men and women tracked the gray fellows to a barn on the road to Hurley. They circled the barn and attacked. A ferocious fight ensued. Although bloated with blood, the gray fellows were fearsome contestants, terrifically strong, inflicting horrific damage on their assailants with the fangs filling their wide mouths, the claws on their long hands and feet. They killed a full third of the party, and of the rest, no one went uninjured. Finally, the widow—whose name was Emma Dearborn—struck the head from one of the creatures with an axe. For a short while thereafter, his companion continued the fight, then leapt through the ranks of the attackers and fled. The group bound up their injuries, burned the remains of their foe, and set off in pursuit of his fellow.

     "For six days, they chased him through the Catskills, occasionally drawing within sight of the gray fellow, though never close enough to do more than waste a musket ball on him. At last, his trail disappeared on the shore of a lake. Assuming he'd hidden beneath the water, the members of the party stationed themselves around the lake and waited for their quarry to emerge. Another four days passed, at the end of which, they decided the gray fellow had either drowned or escaped. A careful search of the surrounding woods failed to turn up any sign the creature had slipped out of the water and through their ranks, so they concluded he had chosen his end in the water rather than at the edges of their knives and axes. They warned the few people living near the lake of what they had pursued into it, advised them to keep an eye out for anything unusual, then returned to Wiltwyck and their separate homes."

     "How did your grandmother know this?" I said. "I'm familiar with the burning of Wiltwyck; they reenact it every other Fourth of July. But the rest of it…"

     "She'd read about it," Doris said, "at the Woodstock library. One of her responsibilities was the local history section, whose shelves contained all sorts of things, personal journals, albums of old newspapers, unpublished manuscripts. She read all of them, in part to figure out how to catalogue the holdings and in part to learn more about the place she and Morfa had chosen to call home. Among the papers she examined was a handwritten document titled Concerning the Terrible and Strange Events of October 18–November 2, 1777. Fifty-six pages long, it was the work of Emma Dearborn, the widow who'd beheaded one of the gray fellows. During the winter after the battle with the creatures, she set down her account of it. There was no record of the means by which the manuscript found its way to the library.

     "When she reached the description of Captain Black's little gray fellows, she recognized the pair as blodsuger. How was that possible, right?"

     I nodded.

     "Mormor's grandmother had come to Denmark from Finland, Lapland, where she had been what the Danes called a heks, the Finns a noita, a witch. She had taught Mormor about the nisse, how to distinguish among them, the proper ways for dealing with the more dangerous varieties. Of course, my grandmother didn't imagine the lake behind her and Morfa's house was the lake from Emma Dearborn's story. It would have been too great a coincidence. But she shared the details of the widow's narrative with my grandfather. His father, a blacksmith, had passed along the same and similar folklore to him. As the one who went off fishing, he was more likely to encounter the remaining blodsuger, assuming there was any truth to the tale she had read and the creature had remained in its watery hiding place. Telling him was a precaution of the same order as reminding him to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes when he went hiking on Overlook Mountain. She didn't expect he would meet any of the reptiles on the paths he followed, but better to be prepared for something that never came than surprised by it shaking its rattle at your feet. The only thing neither of them had anticipated was discovering the blodsuger in the middle of such a ferocious storm. It was the way of life: you made your plans, and God chuckled at them…."


"Blodsuger" by John Langan


*   *   *


Screams from the Dark: 29 Tales of Monsters and the Monstrous Edited by Ellen Datlow (Tor Nightfire, 2022) is an ambitious attempt at a state-of-the-art horror fiction anthology. It includes over two dozen original short stories and novellas of high quality. 


I have already blogged about two stories that demanded my undivided attention:


My notes on the sublime "The Ghost of a Flea" by Priya Sharma can be found here.


An initial response to the gruesome, non-supernatural "'The Father of Modern Gynecology': J. Marion Syms, M.D. (1813–1883)" by Joyce Carol Oates is here.


The reader will find my thoughts on six other stories below.


*   *   *


"Children of the Night" by Stephen Graham Jones is an amusing joke. Tol, the organizer of a Montana cryptid group searching for Bigfoot, gets his prayer answered.


In The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror, John Clute reminds the horror reader that answered prayers are "wishes which are fulfilled in a fashion which punishes the wisher, the biter bit...."


While no sardonic genie or monkey's paw grants protagonist Tol's wish, there might as well have been.


The Bigfoot in question has been killed by a big rig on a lonely mountain highway. Tol  single handedly gets it into the back of the family minivan. (It never occurs to him to alert fellow team members.) Then he begins examining the body.


The author's droll conceit turns out to be that creatures of the night might wisely go in disguise on their errands. When Tol begins to "peel the onion," the reader knows it will all end in tears.


*   *   *


"Three Mothers Mountain" by Nathan Ballingrud also deals with the cost of answered prayers. Tom and his younger brother Scotty lose their father in a car accident. Maddened by grief, their mother mails his wedding ring to the three mountain witches who live above their North Carolina town, Toad Springs. There the ring is planted in a garden. The boys do not get their father back. They get a father-thing instead, a physically corrupt simulacra that wins their mother's single-minded devotion.


So one day Tom and Scotty set out for the witches' mountain cabin, determined to wreck everything.


     The path darkened as they walked. Tom no longer had a sense of what time it was, and he felt a flutter of fear in his gut. Common sense told him it couldn't be any later than two o'clock, two thirty at most. And yet the light filtering through the trees seemed diffuse and weak. This might have been due to the sun pursuing its course above them, and it might have had something to do with the heavy tangle of branches crowding them from either side, but he knew instinctively that the cause was something else: they were entering the Witch Wood. Darkness was an animal, and this is where it lived.


Ballingrud's craft is faultless in "Three Mothers Mountain." The emotional eloquence allowed to each character, the meticulous scene-building orchestrated at kitchen tables in two very different houses, the stoicism ultimately displayed by Tom when facing the consequences of his path, are testament to a writer able to convey every shade of horror. 


     The witches whispered, and then Mother Ingrid said, "Well, perhaps we can do something. Your mother paid. Will you?"

     Thank God, at last, a window. Yes, he would pay. Yes. "Yes."

     "You'll have to make friends with the dark," Mother Margaret said. "Do you have the heart for it?"

     He nodded.

     "We'll see."

     "Don't fret," said Mother Agnes, staring at his little brother. "The sweetest things grow in the dark."


*   *   *


As it begins, "Sweet Potato" sounds like another Joe R. Lansdale organ solo. 


....Though he had a good retirement plan, Tyler hadn't expected his job to end so abruptly, the boss having gone to prison for ass-fondling and grubbing money from the public trust. But there it was. She went and the business went, and now here he was, out in the wilds of unemployment, living off his considerable savings (thank goodness), and submerged way down deep in the cold-ass nothing.

     Dreaming for a while was so fine. No alarm clock, living in pajamas. What he liked best, at first, was that things that seemed silly in real life seemed fine in the dream world. He could be an old-fashioned hero in his dreams. Much younger, washboard abs, a baseball-bat dick, and balls like grapefruits. Carrying a sword, brave and relentless, six foot five and forever young. And then, one night, down in a dream, there was a soundless shift.


But after the early jokiness, a barbed and complicated tale unfolds. Tyler, unemployed and dangerously idle, figures out his increasingly strange waking and sleeping life is the product of something that finds him of use.


"Sweet Potato" carries a warning for men uninterested in the everyday world and its responsibilities.


     Visiting a friend from work, who was also out of a job with time for the coffee shop, Tyler said, after their conversation began to falter, "Have you ever had a dream that seemed real?"

     The friend, gray and heavy with lips like two red earthworms, rocked back in the booth and sipped his coffee before answering.

     "Of course. Though mostly they don't make sense when I wake up. But now and again, they feel real, could be real. Some of the most outlandish dreams seem real at the time."

     "Just for curiosity's sake. Have you ever felt something in a dream come back with you, being there when you woke up?"

     "No. Though I've heard of it. Some people believe your soul lets go sometimes and comes right out of you when you breathe awake. One moment you're breathing asleep, the next, you're breathing awake."

     "Your soul?"

     "If you believe in that sort of thing. Maybe a piece of your soul. Or something worse. A demon. A succubus, which is a kind of sex demon that rides in and out on your essence while you dream, fucks the shit out of you and takes your energy, borrows your soul, and finally keeps it. They can be created by your subconscious, or they can be night riders."

     "What's that?"

     "Loose souls looking for a place to light. A place to suck the energy out of. Men can be incubuses, you know."

     "I don't know."

     "Male sex demons. The succubus in reverse. I think succubuses and incubuses can switch-hit when it comes to sexual matters. You might even have to put Scotch tape over your dog's asshole if one of them is around."

     "I don't have a dog."

     "That's one less worry, then."

     "How do you know all of this?"

     "I read a lot. I found golf too tiring."

     "Well, I could use a sex demon actually," Tyler said.

     "I wouldn't mind one either. But it might be like that old saying about how you have to be careful what you wish for."


*   *   *


"Knock, Knock" by Brian Evenson is a story about two moral monsters, uncle and nephew, pitted against each other over ownership of a house and its land. In their contest, murder does not resolve conflict, it simply raises the stakes and increases the horror.


....You killed the bastard once, he told himself. Now all you have to do is kill him again.


*   *   *


"Bitten by Himself" by Laird Barron is a perfunctory story. It begins in a 

promising mode: a North American frontier scout and mountain man named Chick Poe, prone to wallowing in his own crapulence as a way of life, stumbles upon his doppelganger in a forest clearing one night. They fight and he is bitten, infected with rabies.


From there the tale's missteps and wrong turns commenced. Rather than pursue the rich potential in the story's historical setting, Barron decided to pad the remainder with solipsistic winks, smirks, and reverses.


This is a disappointment for readers who appreciated the riveting if uneven 2013 story "The Beatification of Custer Poe."


But it is an even greater disappointment for readers who thrilled to the sheer storytelling skill seen in stories like "Mysterium Tremendum" (2010), "The Men from Porlock" (2011), and "In a Cavern, in a Canyon" (2015). (Speaking for myself, I found it hard to sleep the first night after I read "Porlock.")


Compared to those sublime stories, "Bitten by Himself" is dully soporific.


*   *   *


"Blodsuger" by John Langan is about the longest story in Screams from the Dark, and is probably the most satisfying. The story's formal elegance is admirable: two people meet at a community social event in the Catskill mountains of New York state. The older protagonist, Doris, tells the narrator the beautifully articulated story of a horror from her adolescence. Langan tells the entire story in dialogue between these two people at a picnic table in a barn. 


"Blodsuger" places horror outdoors, on the land and imbricated in the region's history. Doris is not the victim of answered prayers; she tells the story of her "attempted rescue" of herself, and the way the outcome taught her to know better in future.


The excellence and eloquence of "Blodsuger" is staggering. It reminded me of several earlier Langan stories that have rewarded rereading: "On Skua Island" (2001), "Mr. Gaunt" (2002), and "What Is Lost, What Is Given Away" (2016). 


Langan's stories allow the reader to luxuriate in a horror-filled region made strange by narrative distance.


Jay

4 July 2022


Friday, July 1, 2022

"'The Father of Modern Gynecology': J. Marion Syms, M.D. (1813–1883)" by Joyce Carol Oates

Readers unfamiliar with "'The Father of Modern Gynecology': J. Marion Syms, M.D. (1813–1883)" by Joyce Carol Oates may prefer to read these notes only after reading the story.


*   *   *


    It was rare that I did not closely consult with a husband, a father, or a brother, after having examined a White female patient, and before revealing to her my diagnosis, like any other responsible physician of the day. Every aspect of the White woman's treatment which I undertook was with the approval of a husband or a relative, of course, for it would be he who would be paying my fee, and it would be his satisfaction I would have to provide, particularly in the case of certain "controversial" surgeries with which I was entrusted: requests by husbands of women concerned for their well-being, whether extreme agitation in the woman, or lassitude; manic laughter, or helpless tears; "frigidity" of the lower body inhibiting conjugal relations, or, perversely, an unnatural "avidity" of the lower body during conjugal relations; all these, forms of hysteria.

     Removal of the ovaries was frequently prescribed for these afflicted women, in more extreme cases the removal of the entire uterus (thus, "hysterectomy"); another frequent request was the surgical removal of the vaginal "clitoris," like the appendix a mysterious but useless part of the body with a dangerous latency, described in Galen as hyper-sensitive to any touch, with a propensity to exacerbate excitation, anemia, sleepwalking, hyperventilation, overeating, anorexia, morbid thoughts, migraine, insomnia, madness, and certain unspeakable habits of a degenerate nature more often associated with the male of the species, in his looser behavior.

     The usual stratagem was to invite the (unwitting) patient to the physician's surgery, and converse with her on pleasant, innocuous subjects while providing her with a hot liquid, usually tea, containing a strong soporific, that would soon cause her to fall heavily asleep, without the slightest suspicion; when, hours later, she was capable of being roused, the surgical intervention in the nether region of her body would have been completed, and, apart from inevitable pain, and occasional complications requiring further treatment, the patient would be carried home to heal in quiet, sequestered circumstances. (Rest assured that these surgeries were carefully executed to protect the modesty of the patient: the head and torso of the comatose woman were chastely draped in a white cloth, to render the circumstances impersonal, as in an anatomy lesson, while the thighs were propped up, and spread, exposing to the surgeon's clinical eye the nether regions of the woman, i.e., the vagina, labial lips, birth canal, etc. Steely nerves were required of any surgeon who ventured into such territory, that presented a hellish spectacle to the eye; truly, beyond the power of language to describe, nor have I attempted to describe except to say, in the Journal, humbly, and without vanity or pride, that indeed I saw everything, as no man has ever seen before.)

     According to my carefully maintained physician's log for these years, in no cases did one of my White woman patients complain of the purifying transformation of her body; rather, the removal of ovaries, uterus, clitoris, was scarcely registered at all, in those who survived, most of whom continued on a daily regimen of laudanum….


*   *   *


"'The Father of Modern Gynecology': J. Marion Syms, M.D. (1813–1883)" by Joyce Carol Oates is not for the faint of heart. 


Our narrator, Syms, a real figure from U.S. history, tells the reader how he overcame anxiety and social inferiority in his professional practice and became reconciled to his position and reputation. It is a bloody but compelling narrative; while Syms may not himself have been a monster, he certainly served monsters who commanded a monstrous social system. That monster would never be killed by prayer, wooden stakes or silver bullets: it would require unconditional warfare to uproot and destroy U.S. chattel slavery.


*   *   *


In Horror literature through history: an encyclopedia of the stories that speak to our deepest fears (2017) Rob Latham says of Joyce Carol Oates:


A significant portion of her vast literary output has been cast in the Gothic mold, has deployed themes of the grotesque and uncanny, or has been self-consciously modeled on previous work in the genre....


Oates permits her readers 


.... a vision of horror literature as a cathartic mode, which, by evoking "an artful simulation" of an emotion that is "crude, inchoate, nerve-driven and ungovernable," prepares readers to confront real-world terrors when they arise (Oates 1998, 176).


Her stories are filled, Latham writes, with "themes of haunting, dark obsession, and morbid diablerie (sorcery aided by the devil)."


In "'The Father of Modern Gynecology': J. Marion Syms, M.D. (1813–1883)" the dark obsession of Syms is social and professional mastery. While he cannot "fake it til he makes it" with middle class Caucasian female patients, he ends his memoir when he has achieved an élan that grew from his work doctoring slaves.


          When I tried to explain that the exhausted mother would very likely not live unless she received further medical care, which I would be happy to provide for no extra fee, no one seemed to hear; it was forcibly iterated that General Meigs would be pleased with the outcome—"That is all that matters, Doctor."

     Belatedly, a muted joy rose in my heart, that jubilation which came to me only at the Plantation, in circumstances like these I could not foresee, beyond my control: that, though a failure elsewhere, I was something like a success at the Plantation, and should rejoice in what success I have, and not pine after more.

     A picnic basket of the most delicious fried chicken, and other specially prepared foods, was presented to me, to devour on my journey back home, for which, in my famished state, I was grateful.



Jay

1 July 2022

_____

From: Screams from the Dark: 29 Tales of Monsters and the Monstrous

Edited by Ellen Datlow

(Tor Nightfire, 2022)


Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Twentieth Anniversary Screening (2021) by Jeff Strand

Twentieth Anniversary Screening (2021) by Jeff Strand is a novella in the form of an online article. It digs into the ill-starred twentieth anniversary showing of the already benighted slasher movie, "The Roofer." 


During its initial 1991 run, an audience member at a theater in Cincinnati showing "The Roofer" was killed when a fellow audience member (disgruntled loner type) tried to perpetrate a massacre using weapons inspired by the film. Now, in 2011, three different individuals are inspired with the same goal, and attempt to do the massacre right.


*   *   *


I have not read anything by Jeff Strand before, but Twentieth Anniversary Screening is such a black-hearted, dead-pan, screwball novella that I will shortly correct the oversight. In a hundred pages, Twentieth Anniversary Screening consolidates material that could have made a very tedious 500-page multiple-viewpoint novel, and puts a match to the heap. Every aesthetic danger is anticipated, every rough edge is beautifully smoothed and folded into a story of bold and gorey economy.


Jay

29 June 2022


Tuesday, June 28, 2022

"The Ghost of a Flea" by Priya Sharma

Readers unfamiliar with "The Ghost of a Flea" may prefer to read these notes only after reading the story.


*   *   *


            John Varley came to the rented room on South Molton Street that was our kitchen, bedroom, parlour and workroom. A bear of a man, he had to duck to avoid the prints that Kate and I had hung like drying laundry on washing lines.

     "It's a pleasure to meet you Mrs Blake. Mr Linnell is full of praise for your skill as a printer."

     Kate scoured his face for mockery, as did I, but there was only geniality in his ruddy complexion. The examination was mutual. Age and care had worn Kate down but her hair was still dark and her black eyes lively.

     "Mr Linnell's too kind." Her smile told me she thought John Varley genuine. Her judgement was rarely wrong.

     "Rot, Kate." Christened Catherine, she was always Kate to me. "She's much more Mr Varley. She has a hand in every element of the work you see from design to execution."

     I reached out and we shook hands.

     "Come, sit."

     The chair creaked under his weight. He laid a folio, fat with papers, on his knee.

     "Are you here with a commission Mr Varley? That would help me enormously. I have to pay the butcher."

     "And the greengrocer," Kate put in. "The money is going Mr Blake."

     "Oh, damn the money Mrs Blake!" I barked. "It's always the money!"

     Varley looked alarmed until we both burst out laughing. Our small income was a running theme in our jocular arguments. We'd vowed to be unashamed in our deprivation.

     "I'm not here on a commission. Do you know my work Mr Blake?"

     "Your watercolours? They're very fine."

     "No, my other occupation. I understand that we both have certain sympathies for other realms."

     John wasn't only an artist, but also an astrologist, known for the accuracy of his predictions, his poor head for business and his large brood of children.

     "Yes, I've heard. How can I help you?"

     "Mr Blake, I need to know if your visions are real. I'd understand if they were," he searched for the right word, "cultivated."

     Kate put a hand on my shoulder and I lifted mine to meet it. We would always remain unified. Kate's reply was calm. Her most dangerous state.

     "My husband is publicly ridiculed. His work overlooked by the Royal Academy. He's mocked as the happy madman for his gifts and we barely scrape a living. He's not a liar Mr Varley, not for publicity or anything else."

     "My sincere apologies." He flushed. "I meant no offence. I wouldn't ask unless it were crucial for me to know."

     "I saw angels in the trees at Peckham Rye when I was four years old." They bespangled every bough like stars. "I've had the sight ever since. What do you want from me?"

     "I've been reading the constellations." He pulled at the ribbon securing his folio and it fell open. "May I?"

     He motioned to the workbench which had been cleared for the night. I nodded. He divided up the stack of papers and laid them out. There were charts of the heavens, a map of London, newspaper clippings, and scrawled lists.

     "Mr Blake, there's a blot on the sky so dark that it devours all light and hope." He stabbed at the celestial chart with his forefinger. "The stars are emphatic in their message."

     "Which is?"

     "Death is here."

     "Death's always been here." Kate's gaze was a deep well. "We live in a time of atrocities. Of blockade and famine. Slavery. Riots and revolutions."

     "Not like this. May I show you?" He started to spread out the clippings but paused and looked at me. "Perhaps this isn't for Mrs Blake's eyes."

     "Mrs Blake's eyes are her own," I said gently. "She decides what she sees with them."

     "I'll stay." Kate was resolute.

     "The stars signal certain days going as far back as 1811. They turn their eyes to us in pity. I searched the newspapers from all over the city. I believe this is the first one."




The Ghost of a Flea by William Blake


*   *   *


"The Ghost of a Flea" by Priya Sharma is the finest short story I have read for several years. It is also the best story in its anthology, Screams from the Dark (2022).


Among the many types of story "The Ghost of a Flea" is, historical fiction is the most obvious. "The Ghost of a Flea" is narrated by visionary artist and poet William Blake (1757-1827). He is our narrator, and author Sharma allows him to tell us how he came to create his weird miniature painting, "The Ghost of a Flea." Sharma's achievement is stunning: with great economy she recalls to life the early nineteenth century world of Blake, his companion and collaborator Kate, and the astrologer and occultist John Varley. 


In Sharma's story, the Flea is real, monstrous, and strides through London feasting on human blood. His existence is known to Blake because Blake can see the supernatural creatures hidden from most humans.


Varley has been tracking the Flea by mapping his killings, but does not know the nature of his antagonist until he joins forces with William and Kate.


The three uniting to thwart this adversary naturally brings them to the Flea's attention.


      I lay awake studying Hooke's work by the light of a single candle. Kate was beside me, in the companionable snores of deeper sleep. How one body accommodates another. How what was once charming becomes an irritation to be tolerated and then, with time, essential to our comfort.

     Hooke's drawing of the Flea spanned eighteen inches. Its bristle-jointed legs looked fragile against its bulbous abdomen and plated back. Its head was disproportionately small.

     I put the book down, feeling Kate stir, then settle. I leant back, enjoying her warmth against me. Comfort is beguiling. It lulled me into a sacred space. The flame flared and then guttered, leaving a column of smoke in the moonlight.

     It heralded the Flea. He no longer needed to slink in after the angels, if he ever needed them at all. I reached out to wake Kate but he wagged his finger at me as if I were an errant child.

     The Flea was different in the flesh. He was power personified. Bigger than when I last saw him. Bigger than any man. He had swagger. He stalked across the room like a player on a stage. Naked and shameless. He glimmered with unholy light, that gave him a reptilian iridescence. His musculature was part man, part animal. A prowling tyger. The run of his spine was gnarled and his neck bull-like. He had a murderer's profile.

     "You interfered with my pleasures, William Blake. I had to go out of London because of your meddling."

     Only the thought of brave Eleanor Morton stopped me from screaming.

     "You said your purpose is to kill. The wolf doesn't toy with the lamb. You take pleasure in cruelty."

     "I thought you understood me." He shook his head. Even monsters desire understanding. "I am becoming."

     "Becoming what?"

     "What I should've been. When God made me He intended me to be as big as a bullock but changed his mind. He told me I was too powerful in proportion to my bulk and would be too mighty a destroyer, so He diminished me."

     "He limited you for a good reason."

     "He belittled me." The Flea's rage was swift. "He betrayed me. Am I not magnificent? I should walk as a God upon the Earth."

     My blood curdled.

     "The darkness can't hold me. Nor the Land of Nod. Mayhem's delicious. I'll reach my true proportions and the streets of your precious city will be strewn with corpses."

     "Why are you here? To kill me?"

     The Flea paused by the fireplace and picked up Robert's portrait.

     "Who's this?"

     "My brother."

     "Brothers." He looked from me to Robert. "You loved him deeply."

     He put the picture down and came to the foot of the bed, looming over us.

     "Your wife still has fire, even though the world's worn her down. I can see why you still might want her."

     The Flea slowly pulled the sheets from us. Micrographia fell to the floor with a thump. Kate's nightgown was tangled around her thighs. His gaze wandered along her contours. He slid over her, his body close to her bare legs, without touching her. He inhaled the scent of her hair. I couldn't call out. I couldn't move. I couldn't stop him.

     The thorn appeared in the Flea's hand. In the other an acorn cup as large as a chalice. He trailed the thorn's tip from her stomach to her throat. Then he pierced the skin at her neck, the spot I'd kissed that morning. Kate moaned. He caught the pulsing blood in his ungodly grail, which he lifted to his lipless mouth. His tongue flicked in and out, running around the rim. Then he tipped back his head, the muscles of his throat working as he gulped.

     He hadn't finished. His weight shifted and rolled to the edge of the mattress. It was my turn. I tried to draw away.

     "Why so coy? There's nothing shameful here. Only the mingling of your blood in me, here on your marriage bed."

     The engorged degenerate was closer than a lover. The dome of his head had the same shifting colour as the rest of him. His hot breath on my groin made me tremble. Then came the sharp penetration of the thorn and the wetness that followed.

     "Don't make me your enemy, not when we could be allies."


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This story ranks with works of historical horror by writers like Gerald Kersh and Reggie Oliver. The skill required to recreate a "foreign country" in a way that allows it to radiate its dangerous uncanniness is rare. Sharma clearly demonstrates her mastery of that skill in "The Ghost of a Flea."


Jay

28 June 2022


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