A Victorian tale of dread
|May 14th, 1893
Where my colleagues were concerned, the unassuming missive was nothing more than an elaborate hoax at my expense. Surely, I was the butt of some crude and inexorably drawn-out joke, a bizarre prank - humorous to those masterminding this entire affair and equally amusing to the fellow detectives who freely mocked the unfortunate recipient. I must confess, there was plenty of belly laughs to be shared in the beginning, guffawing at outrageous details and scoffing at the attempts to convince me of the letter's veracity.
All mirth died, however, once the photograph slid out from the envelope.
I took that square mystery to several specialists, experts in the fledgling field of capturing light and darkness. They pored over it, examining the texture, musing over the grain, tossing about foreign concepts like daguerreotype and the Talbot salt process. At great length, I was able to locate an individual who proclaimed it to be an 'ambrotype', hand-tinted.
While he was a proverbial fount of knowledge, I was unable to discover any pertinent details surrounding the unknown photographer and the subjects in question. What I did discover, was that I did not possess a forgery or duplicate. Ambrotypes, he was keen to inform me, were distinctly unique from their genesis. One could never replicate the results.
This only troubled me further, forcing a great manner of unpleasant questions to rear ugly heads and taunt a battered cerebellum with inconceivable answers.
While my search has led me far and wide, I am no closer to uncovering the whereabouts of the two (or three) that set me on this doomed venture many years ago, exhausting every possible lead, picking up cold trails and even colder corpses which medical examiners fail to explain. Is this an admission of guilt, cast through the fantastical viewpoint of a feverish mind?
Or is it an even grimmer prospect, an admonition to be vigilant against the shadow realms which dance at the corners of our perception, never materializing yet reminding us in the dead of night that there are mysteries we will never fully comprehend, walking paradoxes that defy reason, lurking in the quiet moments when the world holds its breath and not even insects dare disturb the asphyxiating blanket which pulls neck hairs and quickens hearts, hearing knocks but finding no guests, seeing faces in the window, smelling odors with no source, feeling strangers lie beside you and turning to find naught but empty sheets...
Even as I write this, I wonder what my true quarry is, what fiendish figment I chase after. Is it stalking me while I follow dead ends and false tracks? I cannot deny the existence of its presence. It clouds my judgment, warping perception as I clutch my pistol beneath the pillow and endure the long wait for blessed dawn.
Forgive me, Mary. I had no inclination this venture would strain our marriage, testing the utmost limits of our love. My waking thoughts ever linger on your beauty and the little cherubs that crawl about our homestead. I know not if I shall ever see them again.
All sanity has rapidly frayed since the morning I received this accursed letter. I hope, oh I dearly wish, that you glean some wisdom from its contents - for all I have found is anguish.
- Percy Shelly, Detective
12th District of Columbia
October 21 Anno Domini 1870
Today, my brother and I beheaded our devoted mother.
T'was not in cold blood. Papa insisted it was a mercy, that leaving poor Mama in such a state would be tantamount to neglecting a defenseless child. She couldn't bathe herself, had trouble speaking, and possessed a positively frightful appetite for red meat. So monstrous was her craving that she set upon our beloved Jack and savaged the wretched animal in front of the maid, who promptly withdrew her services from the household and fled clutching a crucifix.
Papa was forced to wrench what remained of Jack from Mama. She snarled and growled, behaving no better than a wild beast whose meal was rudely interrupted. Once Caleb and I locked her away in the linen closet, Papa fetched the shovel. I rarely wept at funerals but Jack was more than our family dog. He was a true friend and companion, having survived the coldest of winters and succeeded in fighting off black bears and mountain lions alike, only to succumb to the embrace of his beloved mistress. Caleb shared in my tearful grief, though afterward, he was quick to deny any such attacks on his stoic nature.
"What's to become of Mama?" I questioned Papa. His sunken eyes seemed to retreat further still, shadows deepening in that gaunt desperation that would slowly consume us all. "I must consult my research," He confessed, stroking a beard which held more grey than brown. "Whatever happens, you must keep everyone away from your mother. That includes you both as well. I know not if this malady is an infectious one."
The request was certainly reasonable. Simple, one might even say, for the only action required was inaction, leaving the door closed and barricaded should her inhuman strength overpower the wooden defenses.
Papa abandoned us. He needed to consult an occultist, unearth some rare herbs, seek out a possible cure... Whatever excuses were made it was increasingly clear to Caleb and I that our progenitor was not returning as swiftly as we'd like, leaving us to turn away visitors and craft elaborate explanations to associates and well-wishers of our elders.
Some proved difficult to convince.
"How long will they be on holiday?" Gertrude interrogated a hapless Caleb, who looked more uncomfortable with each indignant question. She sniffed sharply, displeased with his clumsy responses. Wizened hands clutched her Sunday bonnet, doubtlessly keen on sharing some gossip with our ailing mother.
I interjected to the relief of my perspiring brother. "We understand she has fallen ill on the journey and is currently recuperating at a local sanitarium."
My feminine grace was met with suspicion, Gertrude fixing me with a gimlet eye and refusing to depart until her troubles were satisfied. "Might I ask where they are now? I should like to send Agnes a postcard encouraging her speedy recovery."
Swallowing slightly, I shook my head regretfully. "I do believe it is a terrible season for mail. Father complained of tempests and hurricanes besieging them, doubtlessly it was the reason Mama has taken so poorly. But I believe they should be making the return journey as we speak."
"Still, I should like to give her my regards. Do be kind and help an old woman out? This matter weighs on my conscience so." Gertrude craned her head through the doorway, trying to glimpse the reason behind our growing deception or notice a fatal crack in our defenses. "Where's Milly?" She frowned. "The living room could use a dusting."
Caleb cleared his throat politely. "Milly has taken a few days off. It seems her sister is visiting - at least that was my understanding."
"Well," Gertrude huffed. "Isn't that just the most peculiar thing? Appears the entire household has up and gone off on a lark, leaving the children to fend for themselves."
"We are not children," I remarked coldly. "I will forward these concerns to our parents, whom I might remind you, are due to arrive any day now. Thank you for coming by. Next time we shall be more equipped to entertain guests."
After I closed the door, Caleb began gnawing on his knuckles in the most horrid way. "We can't keep spinning these stories," He lamented. "It's been weeks, Clara! The whole infernal town will be standing on our lawn if that old bat starts spreading rumors."
I scolded him for the unsightly biting and rubbed my head, sensing a thunderous ache approaching. We were in dire straits, caught between a murderous mother and busy body neighbor. "Perhaps we could allow Mama a visitor? Gertrude might be a savior in disguise, presenting us a few more nights until Papa decides to haunt our doorstep."
Caleb whirled, eyes popping and jaw flapping. "Did- did you just bandy about the idea of feeding someone to Mama?"
"What of it? Surely it would be a boon to the community. And silence Mama for a while. Her groans are becoming awfully tedious." I could see nothing wrong with my suggestion. Reading this now, I realize how the transformation affected our family in different ways. Caleb was the only one to resist the inhumanity of our circumstances... but even he fell prey to that insidious darkness in the end.
"Has everyone gone mad?!" He stormed off, ruddy-faced and heavily disturbed by the whole affair.
I had my fair share of troubles but saw things in a rather impersonal light. Perhaps it was the sleepless nights that warped my perception, the hours of pondering endless scenarios, actions I could take, wondering what on earth to do with Mama and the nosy townsfolk.
The next morning, Caleb and I breakfasted on stale toast and gooseberry jam. They were the only things left in the cupboard, having eaten nearly everything else we could find and not daring to make a trip to the grocers, where we would be subject to a barrage of inquiries. At least the milkman still made deliveries. Yet even that would cease after the monthly bill went unpaid. My head seemed to swell, threatening to split open both skin and skull. Sweet Caleb fetched a wet towel and bade me lie down, rest a spell while he kept watching for Father.
But my peaceful respite was ruined by the incessant moaning echoing up the stairs. I placed a pillow over my head, wishing those feathers would shut out the guttural sound arising every minute with metronomic precision.
Father never arrived. My headache was as punctual as he was not, arriving early and outstaying its welcome. Eventually, I asked Caleb to pour me a healthy snifter, hoping it would bring temporary relief. It worked marvelously. Now I understand the appeal that liquor has on adults. Why it is a poor man's cure-all for any ailment.
Caleb didn't hesitate to join in the revelry, claiming a bottle of absinthe for his personal use. If Mama were in her right state of mind, it would have appalled her to see me belching like a sailor as Caleb drunkenly danced atop the dinner table.
I remember wishing that night of bacchanalia wouldn't end.
Never before had we had such delights, having grown too old for childish play and forced to adopt stiffly formal behaviors as a prerequisite for adult life.
I'm sorry, Mama. In my inebriation, I cursed at you for being such a burden. I voiced many a great and terrible thing, which only Caleb knows, but I surmise he scarcely recalls most of that night. The parts he does recollect are the ones I wish to forget. That was when our precarious house of cards came tumbling down.
While my besotted brother was deep in the throes of that chartreuse concoction, an unfamiliar sound rustled. Pricking my ears, I turned my head towards the linen closet. Our mother was still grunting in that horrid toneless voice, starved wails rising from her makeshift prison. Caleb waggled hands before his eyes, wholly absorbed in alternating motions and giggling at the unseen amusements which wormwood provides.
Interlocking fingers, he cast dancing shadow puppets upon the walls. "Gobble gobble quoth the turkey," Caleb slurred. I closed my eyes to his antics and devoted all attention to listening.
Ever so faintly, the scraping began again.
"Did you hear that just now?" I blinked owlishly at him, half wondering if I wasn't experiencing hallucinations as well.
Startled from his reverie, Caleb rubbed unfocused eyes and glanced about half-dazed. "Hear what? It's only Mama. She probably wants a drink as well,' He chuckled at his jape.
I shook my unsteady head and gestured towards the kitchen. "I'm quite certain it came from there."
Scratch, scratch, scratch. The odd rhythm returned, filling us with disquiet. My brother could not deny the existence of this new mystery, reluctantly agreeing to approach it. "Perhaps it's only a rat?" He murmured doubtfully.
"I've never known a rodent to make such a clatter." I wobbled to my feet, nearly tripping over my silken nightdress. After regaining my precarious equilibrium, I carefully reached for the blunderbuss mounted over our sooty hearth.
"Is it loaded?" Caleb grunted, attempting to find his own sense of balance.
Brushing a tangle of messy hair away from my flushed face, I peered at the flared muzzle. "If it is, I pray Papa didn't neglect to clean it."
Tentatively, we crept towards the kitchen. Despite our furtive efforts we moved with the grace of a drunken elephant. If it was a rat, the commotion would have sent the vermin skittering off in fright. Scratch scratch scratch. It clawed at the back door and grew more impatient by the minute.
Leaning against the washbasin, I dared a glimpse through the window, hoping to catch sight of the unwelcome guest. It proved impossible to discern anything behind the filmy veneer of dried suds and grease, viewing nothing but the inky gloom outside.
The abrasive clamor ceased. A low whine sighed, warped with unnatural pitch.
Gooseflesh prickled my skin, hairs standing taut as the eerie yowl began again. Mama answered, moaning louder than ever. Her cries harmonized with the creature, forming a hideous melody that increased in timbre before fading into a haunting whisper.
Caleb snatched a meat cleaver, an ashen pallor spreading over his countenance. The blunderbuss quivered in my grasp. Inch by harrowing inch, we neared the wooden portal. My palms sweated, the heavy rifle threatening to slide away as I raised the weapon to eye level. Wordlessly, I pointed toward the door handle.
Reaching for the brass knob, Caleb paused to take one last shaky breath. I nudged him with a foot. He nodded grimly and swallowed. The silence seemed to stretch on forever as his fingers cautiously wrapped around the metal crank and twisted it.
Creaking softly, the door swung open.
Caleb turned to me, face beaming with wonder. "Jack came back to us!" My eyes widened at the sight before me, unwilling to share in his newfound joy. Not daring to move, I entreated my brother quietly. "Close the door, Caleb. That's no dog of ours."
A grey tongue lolled in a breathless snout, milky retinas shifted in a moldering skull as Jack observed his masters. He keened miserably, canine whimper oozing from a torn neck, ivory bones glinting where decaying viscera fell away. One ragged ear dangled, swaying in a midnight breeze. The former pet sat upright, alert and attentive even in death.
"But it's Jack, Clara. Can't you see?" Caleb grinned at the reanimated sentinel guarding the terrace. He put a hand out, seeking to embrace the beloved companion. Rotten lips slid away from teeth blackened with necrosis. Jack hunched, emitting a burbling growl.
"Stop," I rasped, blunderbuss shaking unsteadily. "Stay away from Jack before I blast your head off."
The living carcass opened its crumbling maw, unleashing a famished howl. Scales fell from Caleb's eyes, seeing through the wormwood illusion as Jack lunged at his neck. Caleb screamed, flinching back from snapping jaws. Thunder boomed with a deafening roar. Pain blossomed over my shoulder, making me stagger back as the rifle kicked harder than any mule.
Buckshot tore through the fiend, sending Jack sprawling back into the yard. It twitched, muscles spasming. A leg jutted out, bending unnaturally as the beast slowly clambered to its feet.
"Caleb," I gasped, winded by the detonation. Kicking the door shut, Caleb locked it and slumped to the tile floor, shuddering. My legs refused to support me any longer. Sliding down the wall, I joined my shaken brother and hugged him as our frayed nerves tried to make sense of what transpired.
It is hard to say how long we lay there. Was it minutes? Hours? Time has no meaning after death brushes by, a sobering reminder that days are numbered so we must count each breath as a blessing. There was no such relief for Caleb and I.
For scarcely had our hearts eased hammering when the front doorbell clanged.
"It might be Papa," I mused, not daring to hope. My sibling refused to believe it, insisting that we should not allow any more visitors until the sun was out. Truly, it was the wisest choice. Yet I couldn't drown the longing to see our father once again, to hear his booming laugh and let that dry smile wash away this ordeal, as if it was nothing more than a horrible vision.
"I'll see who it is. Don't worry, I won't answer unless we know for certain it's Papa." I gave Caleb an encouraging smile. He didn't respond to my forced cheer, glimpsing beneath that cracked mask of optimism.
The doorbell chimed insistently, spurring my feet towards the parlor window. Who else would come at this late hour, if not Papa? He was wont to midnight adventures, regaling us with tales of graveyard excursions and meetings between fellow practitioners of esotericism. Spiritualists would consult his advice for seances, alchemists would come buy to sell powders, and even the odd mystic would read our palms in exchange for Mama's mincemeat pies.
The bell fell silent. An impatient rapping echoed through the oak door, matching the fearful tempo beating in my breast. I squinted through the lattice window.
A thin outline loomed against the starry sky, wearing a familiar bonnet. "Open the door, child! I demand to know what mischief you two are doing at this wretched hour." Gertrude glowered at me behind the diamond panes.
I groaned, not unlike our ill-fated mother.
"He hasn't come back for us, has he?" Caleb leaned against the parlor hutch. His wan face scanned my crestfallen expression, gleaning the answer but wishing it wasn't so. I shook my head, wavy locks swaying.
"Let me in, I say! If there isn't an explanation I will go to the authorities at first light!" Her shrill voice pierced the thick wooden barrier.
My headache returned, as did my temper. Seeing the malice burning in my eyes, Caleb gently placed his hand upon my shoulder. "Let us go, Clara. She can rap her knuckles till they turn bloody for all I care. Leave it for the morning."
A wicked smile twitched at my lips. "I believe," I mused, "That dear Gertrude deserves her answers."
Snatching my arm, Caleb stared aghast at my machinations. "No. I will not be party to this foul scheme. Haven't there been enough horrors for one night?"
The damnable crone struck the door repeatedly, the reverberations echoing within my throbbing cranium. "I will have you put in an orphanage if you do not present a suitable reason for this madness! Unlock the d-" Her threats were cut off with a strident cry. Caleb paused, dreaded comprehension haunting his haggard countenance. My smile deepened into a broad grin.
Beneath the discordant wailing, a low growl emanated.
"Help! Let me go you insolent beast!" Sobbing fearfully, the old woman struggled to escape Jack as I listened with voyeuristic delight. Caleb rushed to her rescue. This time, it was I who held my brother back.
"Our problem has sorted itself," I muttered and drew him away from the entrance.
Rebelling against my grasp, Caleb thrashed and fought while the screaming escalated. "She will die if we sit idly by!"
"Yes," I remarked gleefully. "Seems that faithful dog has our interests at heart."
Gertrude shrieked in agony. There was a tearing sound, cloth shredding. Footsteps retreated as the screeching faded into the distance. Jack howled mournfully.
"Seems your help wasn't required," I remarked sourly. Caleb pushed away from me, breaking free. Chest heaving, he wiped tearful eyes and fixed me with a scalding glare, face darkening as fury contorted adolescent features. I waited expectantly for him to recollect his whirling thoughts.
But no words came. The flames burned away, leaving the ashes of despair. He shook his head, lips pressed tightly, brown orbs glistening with disappointment. Then he silently tread upstairs.
I remained standing in the foyer, listening to our deceased pet prowl around the tulip bed. What possessed me to behave in such a manner? I searched my soul for remorse and found no trace of regret. Why did my brother look at me as though I was the true monster lurking in this house? Couldn't he see that we must adapt our sensibilities to this unconventional situation? Or was it only I who could harden my heart in the face of evil?
The next morning brought soothing sunlight, bird song, and long due explanations. At long last Papa returned home.
I rushed to his side, embracing the woolen overcoat and pungent scent of pipe tobacco. Caleb remained atop the stairs, unwilling to join my jubilation. Papa didn't seem to notice. His cheekbones stood out sharply, the lines on his brow deepened, fixing me with a hollow stare. Yet a twinkle still glimmered inside that rattled gaze.
"Oh my darling daughter," Papa exhaled, wrapping arms around me. "I'm glad to see you still have your health."
He glanced up to see Caleb watching above, jaw clenched grimly as he viewed our affection with disdain. Nostrils flared as spite fell from an acid tongue. "What news do you bring, Father? Have you finally come to cure Mama of her affliction? Or will you leave us again for another fortnight?"
Papa released me and leaned on his cane. "I have much to tell you both. None of it is good tidings, I fear."
Several years ago, he began, a polar expedition to the Arctic reaches returned with a startling discovery. After taking samples of permafrost, the British crew unearthed a prehistoric worm deep in the frozen soil, laying dormant for millennia. Curiously, the invertebrate began to move upon thawing.
It found itself in the possession of a Swiss scientist, who discovered the organism did not seem to have the faculties of life. It survived without oxygen, sustenance or anything which earthly beings require. The worm was strangely aggressive and carnivorous, feeding upon mice in a most unsettling fashion. After observing the rodents' remains it was soon apparent that the unknown morphon was able to spread the symptoms to its prey, which rose and crawled about after a few days.
"Victor," As my father referred to the scientist, "Is a close friend and colleague. He wondered if there was a connection between this inexplicable revivification and the Haitian voudou I was studying at the time. Upon receiving one of the mice, I proceeded to dive into various tomes on the subject. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Kabbala, Ars Goetia, none of which could provide any satisfactory answers."
Caleb interrupted the story, narrowing his vision with contempt. "You let the mouse bite Mama, didn't you. Was this all part of your experiments? Were we to be the next victims on your list?"
The armchair seemed to swallow Papa as he sank into it, wholly defeated by the accusation. "I - I never intended for any such outcome. Who could have expected the fiend would dislocate its bones to slip from the cage? Agnes had little inkling of the threat and by the time I reached her..." He withdrew a kerchief from his pocket and wiped foggy spectacles clean. When he resumed speaking, his voice was thick and strained. "This tragedy rests upon my shoulders. You need not blame yourself for my sins."
"Never intended to," Caleb snarled. "How could you do this to us?"
I spoke up, using soft and gentle speech to counter my brother's outburst. "Is there any hope for a cure, Papa?"
Burying his face in weathered hands, my father unleashed a disconsolate sigh. "On every account," He bemoaned, "I have failed." We said nothing as Papa grieved for our mother, and perhaps for us all.
Caleb softened slightly upon seeing the remorse on Papa's face, perceiving that we also had ill news to share of our confinement. After burdening him with the return of Jack and Gertrude's midnight visitation, a pained expression flit across his brow. "Alas," Papa murmured. "It is worse than I feared."
Lifting himself from the armchair, he paced about the room. "There is no time to waste. We must excise the corruption before Doomsday approaches."
I glanced at my brother, sharing a dreaded realization. There would be no return to our carefree lives, no halcyon days of summer, no flights of fancy amidst the approaching disaster. We were now thrust into a shadowed world, cursed with loathsome knowledge.
Jack was the first to fall beneath the axe. Our father insisted that he should be the one to strike that fatal blow. The severed head wriggled in the dirt, eyes rolling as the animate body part resisted discarding its mortal coil. It ceased after the axe descended a second time, bashing brains in.
I urged Papa to let me put Mama to rest, fearing he would be too overwhelmed with emotion. To my astonishment, Caleb agreed. He purported this was our burden to share, that we must come together as a family else risk the misfortune tearing our bonds apart. How quickly you've grown, little brother. If only it were under more blissful circumstances.
We bound dear Mama to a chair as she protested, grey skin blooming with decay while her head thrashed about, teeth clacking hungrily. I held the bloodied axe as Caleb crouched behind our mother, holding her still.
"Goodbye, Mama." I whispered. "May the angels bear you to paradise."
I didn't dare dwell on her memory. My arm moved of its own accord, neatly delivering that final, painful collision. Father decided to capture our act of matricide with a photograph, so that we might not forget the evils which befell our household. He needn't have bothered. Caleb and I would never let this experience fall to the wayside.
A movement caught my eye after the flash powder ignited. There was a little cottage beside our home, a window looking across the backyard where these events transpired. Lace curtains shifted, a figure hurriedly rushing from the glass.
When it was time to confront our elderly neighbor, we discovered that Gertrude had fled in panic. She boarded a train to New Brunswick and left behind all her worldly possessions, rightfully fearing that her lunatic neighbors would be coming for her head next. Papa bade us to pack our bags, that we might give chase and bring this tribulation to a conclusion.
I wondered when the symptoms might overtake her frail body. Would she transform on the train? Who would fall victim to her insatiable appetite, repeating the endless cycle of violent death and execrable resurrection? I know not what awaits us on this fated journey.
Together we stood atop a brown hillside, dry grass tickling our legs as we witnessed the orange flames consuming our ancestral home. My thoughts lingered on Mama laying in bed, prone form blanketed with lilies, her favorite flower. Smoke rose over the town, figures rushing to put out the fire. When the ashes drifted over us, Papa announced it was time to depart.
Caleb remained where he was, jaw grimly set with determination. Yet I saw his eyes waver as he took one last look at the ivy covered house, where we raced through hallways, squealing as we slid down banisters, pilfering the pantry while Milly scolded us, playing hide and seek with Mama, exploring the woods under Jack's watchful eye...
I slipped my hand in his. He squeezed it once, then followed as we turned backs on the smoking remnants of our past.
Caleb insisted that I pen this letter to the authorities, so that the world might understand the reasoning behind our unspeakable actions. You might think this nothing but the ramblings of a madwoman. I have provided the only proof I can. Enclosed in this envelope is the photograph of Caleb and I standing beside our mutilated mother, he holding her head as I brandish the axe.
If you think us lunatics, so be it. But we are the ones who will ensure the dead remain so. Papa said this will be a new chapter in our lives, becoming the last bastion against the growing dark.
Do not seek us out. You shall find naught but fragments and rumors, ghosts in the wind. For to hunt beasts, one must cast aside their humanity and embrace the primal nature lurking within. We are nothing more than creatures of the night.
- Clara Van Helsing