The Fall of the House of Hali

December 20, 2015

Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Stranger: Indeed?
Cassilda: Indeed, it’s time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

* * * * *

The irony that the last three descendants of the Carcosan Dynasty had ended up living in the penthouse apartment of a building on the Rue de la Republique had long ago lost even the slightest trace of grim humour for them, yet half-siblings Claudine and Jean-Laurent and their cousin Thierry had never been able to put it out of their minds completely.

Consider the three of them, lounging around the salon on that sultry early evening in mid-August, caught up once again in one of their customary situations of simmering resentment and jealousy. Claudine, the eldest of the three by a small margin although still a young woman in the scheme of things, was the only one to have had bestowed on her the mahogany hair, pale complexion with a hint of olive to it, thick brows and large, soft, dark-brown eyes characteristic of their ancient House, looks which cause her frequently to be mistaken for an immigrée from the Levant; both her half-brother and their mutual cousin, the youngest of the three, had inherited their greenish eyes, sandy hair and skin that tended towards the florid from their grandmother, an American of Irish stock. As had happened in every generation of this unguessably ancient line, there had been a terrible tension between the need to maintain the family’s power and wealth through marriage with outlying cadet branches, and the knowledge that this persistent inbreeding was leading to the ever more prevalent occurrence of both physical and mental feebleness and, over the last century especially, outright madness.

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Wormsign

December 19, 2015

No-one now recalls exactly when the Sign of the Worm came to the great city. All that was previously straight and orderly became curled and entangled. All knew that when the Prime Minister spoke on television, it was the Worm animating his form and ordering the words his mouth produced – the fleshy red Worm within his mouth was there for all to see. Every train upon every track became an embodiment of the Worm’s sinuous form, and all signals passing down cables and fibres, carrying voices, data, entertainment and obscenities, became manifestations of the pulsing, squirming body of the Worm.

Soon we all recognized that this slithering shape had infiltrated the land, the air and our own minds and bodies, but none dared say so himself, or admit to anyone she knew that her words and actions were no longer her own, but those of the Worm. Even natural phenomena demonstrated the Worm’s presence: flocks of starlings snaked and knotted across the sky as they had never done so before, lightning slowly wriggled to earth in defiance of any understood law of physics, and streams and rivers swelled grotesquely, become viscous and livid with writhing, vermicular forms.

Each day that passed only showed further evidence of the great Worm’s inveigling of its hideous Form into the fabric of the land and the souls of the people. Each transaction took place only because the Worm permitted it to take place, with cash or plastic changing hands as arms momentarily snaked together to make the shape of the Worm. Each lesson, lecture, sermon, broadcast and news item occurred as words Wormed out of the mouths of pedagogues, demagogues, holy men and policy makers and wriggled voluptuously into the ears of their respective publics. Each act of love, pleasure or procreation was revealed nakedly as a Worming-In, in means, process and end.

Soon the Worm was all there was, as everything still remaining above ground was rendered porous and friable and eventually sank into the earth, where Worms and nothing more made up the totality of all that lived and moved.

The Ship

December 17, 2015

I’d been enjoying the trip so far – much of the Island is gorgeously rustic and atmospheric at any time of year, and at no time moreso than in the autumn – and with one day to go, I felt that I should complete the experience by taking in some of the local lore specific to the so-called ‘back of the Wight’: the southern and southwestern coast, where the accumulated legendry of smugglers, shipwrecks and ghosts is at its densest. For this reason I had booked just a single night at the Black Rat Inn; a hostelry close to the southernmost point of this little landmass, dating from the 18th century, which is to say, the very Golden Age of smuggling.

Following dinner and a few pints, during which time I’d pumped the landlord for all the information he could give about the local history, traditions and superstitions, I decided to take a stroll down to the clifftop, overlooking the English Channel and a spot a few hundred meters out to sea where, it was said, the ribs of a wrecked Victorian schooner could still occasionally be seen at the very bottom of a spring tide.

The full moon already hung high in the clear sky that mid-October early evening and the waves had been receding all day, so I was hoping to be able to see some sign of the wreck and had even brought a small pair of sports binoculars with me for this very purpose. As I walked down from the grounds of the old inn and across a field in which a few sheep grazed, I saw that my hopes had not been in vain: clearly visible above the small waves were the stumps of three masts, and here and there the protruding part of a wooden rib that had once formed the hull of a large sailing vessel.

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Harrow

December 17, 2015

Don’t fall asleep, keep senses keen,
While training it to Wembley Park,
To Dollis Hill or Willesden Green;
For if you doze as sky grows dark,
You’ll wake to views that chill the marrow,
For you’ll have ended up in Harrow.

Within this place there is no cheer,
No pleasant green or babbling brook;
No tavern offering warmth and beer,
Nowhere to eat or a buy a book.
There’s only standing stone and barrow,
In that wasted land called Harrow.

The region’s void of living things,
With ne’er a dog or cat or mouse;
No butterfly with painted wings,
No ladybird or spotted grouse.
You’ll see no kestrel, dove or sparrow,
But only carrion crows in Harrow.

Harbingers of doom and death,
Portents whisp’ring of decay;
A wind that seems the Reaper’s breath,
Grey ash on all that you survey.
The ruthless march of Time’s swift arrow;
Such are the sights you’ll see in Harrow.

A collector of note

December 16, 2015

Percival Kitt-Brooks, Professor of Anthropology at Exeter College and a collector of note, was immensely pleased with his latest acquisition. A colossal Maori war spear – ceremonial, undoubtedly, for it was quite certainly much too large and heavy to have been of any practical use – had been shipped to him by a missionary currently active near Wellington. Some eight feet in length and made of a fantastically tough and almost black exotic hardwood, it was carven along most of its length with scenes depicting ancestral spirits of the tribe and a variety of patrician deities, all of whom were doing various disgusting and incredibly painful-looking things to human figures representing members of neighbouring rival tribes. Although highly stylized, the carvings were remarkably lifelike in terms of facial expression, with leering eyes, fang-like teeth and other features picked out with masterful artistry in abalone and jadeite. The professor had been so impressed with the thing that he’d had it installed vertically, point uppermost, in the atrium of the grand Georgian villa he and his family called home, just off Holywell Street to the immediate north of the ancient heart of Oxford. It couldn’t stay there for good, of course, but he would enjoy showing it off to visitors or simply poring over it by himself for a few weeks while he wrote up a paper on it and a few other artefacts he’d acquired in the last couple of months, before having it displayed permanently in the museum he’d recently established (and, with characteristic modesty, named after himself). The various curses associated with the object, which the missionary had had the foresight to jot down and send to Kitt-Brooks before having the chief who’d described them baptized at riflepoint, were previously unknown to anthropology and analysis of them would form a vital part of the paper.

“Ugh, you’re not going to leave the vile thing there are you, darling?”, came a politely distressed voice from upstairs. Percival sighed and looked up to see his wife, a vision of mildly disapproving beauty in a crinolette and bustle, leaning over the bannister and frowning.

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Guardian of the Gate

December 14, 2015

This tale is hereby prefaced with a disclaimer. The final revelation presented herein is so mind-blastingly hideous that only the most hardened devotee of the truly horrific should venture further. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

I swallowed the first of the three pills I had so carefully prepared and lay back upon the divan. This was to be the most important and also the most risky experiment yet in my ongoing research programme (principle researcher: me; test subject: me) into accessing the remotest states of consciousness and experience.

It had taken many months to perfect the recipes, I reflected, as I waited for the pill to take effect. The timing was crucial: it was necessary for the effects of the first pill to be well underway before I took the second, and likewise for the second to be coming on before I took the third, but the effects of the first must not be so strong as to incapacitate me to the extent that I would be physically unable to administer the second, and similarly, the second must not prevent the administration of the third. The calculations of both dosage and timing had been painstaking, and I had set two alarm clocks ensure nothing went awry.

And so the earliest indications of the first pill were eventually manifesting themselves. Visually, the contents of the drawing room started subtly to shift, then shimmer and finally to swim with vortices, curlicues and arabesques. I must have smiled to myself in the semi-darkness, for it was exactly as I had experienced it before during several dry runs of the first pill only. Its intended effect was essentially to prepare the mind for the pills that were to come after; to soften up the tyrannical hold exerted upon the everyday consciousness by so-called ‘reality’. Then and only then, once the First Gate, as I had come to think of it, had been breached and penetrated, could the next phase begin. This is the Gate that may be passed by effort of will alone, without requiring the permission of a gatekeeper.

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Rector vs Spectre

December 13, 2015

It had been a good funeral, as these things go, reflected Vicar Priestly as the sun began to set behind the parish church of which he’d been the primary cleric for nearly thirty years. (Yes, his surname really was Priestly. No, he didn’t find it that amusing, and those who hadn’t met him before and were inclined to say “Hey, that’s funny, what with you being a priest and everything!” were generally treated to a tight-lipped smile and a look that some might consider unChristian.) The deceased, a Mr Jonathan Simonon, had been one of those pillar-of-the-community types, nearly eighty years of age and for over half of that time a respected parishioner, friend to the poor, regular churchgoer and part-taker in – often organizer of, in fact – all sorts of community events. The kind of parishioner vicars consider sadly few and far between, these days, and now they were one fewer again.

The vicar looked around the small but beautiful old Ch. of Ss Peter & Paul with the cod-mediaeval Victorian stained glass in the western window glowing gorgeously with the low golden rays and sighed happily. His eye roved over the beautiful arras hanging either side of the nave, the exquisitely carven 17th-century pews, the colourful but not overly complicated embroidered cloth draped over the altar; this was indeed the most stylish church for, oh, easily fifty miles in any direction. For Vicar Priestly had an aesthetic sense more highly developed than that of most of his fellow men and women of the cloth, and considered tastefulness next to godliness.

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Fruiting bodies

December 13, 2015

It was the first week of October and the weather had just started to turn after an unusually warm and dry September. For Paul this was something to celebrate, as while it signalled the end of the fruitful late summer (which had been particularly fruitful this year), it meant the beginning of the annual fungal bonanza that was the highlight of his year. From the first serious autumn rains up until the frosts that heralded winter, most weekends found Paul trudging through fields, pastures, woods and public gardens, basket in one hand and knife in the other, eyes glued to the ground or leaping from tree-stump to tree-stump.

One of Paul’s favourite haunts, as he thought of it – always followed up with an unspoken ‘no pun intended’ and a goofy smile – was the long-deconsecrated Mile End Cemetery, a few minutes’ walk from his address just off Bow Road. From roughly midsummer onwards, this great entropic place of semi-legible, lichen-encrusted Victorian headstones, flamboyantly sombre Gothic Revival memorial sculptures and tangled vegetation was thick with berry-laden brambles; as September came on, these were joined by elderberries and sloes, and finally the many diverse fungi that made their home here leapt into action and produced a marvellous array of fruiting bodies, to the delight of squirrels, molluscs and beetle larvae – as well as Paul. He couldn’t be sure he was the only human to enjoy this free bounty offered by the old cemetery but of the various other locals he’d seen strolling there, walking their dogs or jogging, he’d not noticed any of them taking much of an interest in any of the wild edible things that grew there.

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St Clement’s

December 11, 2015

It is a little-known fact that St Clement’s Hospital on Bow Road, E3, is actually still in use, having supposedly been closed in 2005. An extremely convincing decoration job – or rather, anti-decoration job – has been performed on the exterior of the building to give the impression of long-term disuse, while a system of tunnels allows staff and patients to enter and exit the building from clandestine access points in other buildings many tens of metres away. The reason for the incredibly covert operation of this hospital is that it is dedicated to the treatment of patients suffering from highly outré conditions.

Here follows a small sample of the patients currently receiving treatment at St Clements, including in one case an excerpt from case notes. (It should be noted that St Clements medical staff have considerably more freedom with respect to the usual requirements of clinical objectivity in case notes, due to the extremely unusual nature of the cases treated there.)

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The dead, the living

December 10, 2015

They said, at first, that it was a regular tanker, carrying oil or mineral ores or something mundane like that. Registered in Bergen but Russian-owned. It had got into trouble in the southwestern part of the North Sea, about forty kilometres off the Suffolk coast. Even then, people had wondered aloud how such a huge ship could have capsized in low winds and low seas, many kilometres from the nearest coast or any known shallows.

Soon people were saying that it wasn’t a tanker at all – far too small, for one thing – but a research vessel heading south from a scientific station in Novaya Zemlya, with a course plotted to take it through the English Channel, down Europe’s western seaboard, through the Mediterranean and the Black Sea to Rostov. There was speculation that Russian scientists were about to announce a breakthrough discovery – people spoke of archaeology, palaeontology, cryptozoology – but nothing was known for certain.

Then there came rumours of what could be seen on Google Earth: a great grey slick that seemed to emit a soft, iridescent light of its own, spreading out from the stricken ship and heading out mostly in a southwesterly direction, towards the mouth of the Thames estuary, in exactly the opposite direction from the usual current. Other, much smaller streams could be seen heading due south and southeast, towards the major ports of northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands. But within a couple of days the slick and the crippled ship were gone from Google Earth, replaced by a perfectly normal satellite photograph of the southern North Sea and its coastline, and people spoke bitterly of conspiracies and cover-ups.

Three days after the first news of the disaster at sea, people living on the Essex and Kent coasts began to notice something strange. The great, frigid expanse of the North Sea, always one shade of grey or another, had taken on an unearthly hue. Although still grey, it glittered repellently and at night gave off a dull, leprous glow. Further, it seemed to have had an unprecedented effect on sea life: fish didn’t sicken and die but appeared to become possessed of an unfathomable intelligence and purpose, and could be seen from the air or from the tops of cliffs swimming in great coordinated solid blocks, each many tens of thousands of individuals strong, forming what looked like the cryptic characters of some utterly unknown alphabet. Gulls took to the skies and wheeled in perfect circles while those watching below could only guess at what these portents meant.

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fig-2: a new art exhibition every week for 2015 (aj dehany)

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