Quentin S. Crisp has been described as a modern-day Lovecraft, but he is so much more than that. He is perhaps one of the most exciting new UK authors for some time. His Psychopomps novella met with an amazing reaction when published by Haunted Dreams Press a few years ago, and this led to his first book acceptance: a weird and wonderful collection called The Nightmare Exhibition. Quentin has worked in the past as an English teacher in Japan and is currently over there right now. He has a new collection coming out soon - and yes, that is his real name...
'Some are born to sweet delight'
- William Blake
I have come to think upon Decay considerably more than the average person. For the majority, it seems, the bright sun wakes them each day as if the previous day was forgotten. I wake up in filthy sheets to see dead leaves piling outside the window. What is morbid for others is normal and inevitable for me. In fact, I am astonished that a morbid disposition is not universally considered normal. Everything decays, after all. My life has been almost a study of this fact. Everything decays; not at the same rate exactly, but as if Decay is a single force or entity whose hand is laid evenly upon all things. I have observed the minutiae of this constant siege. I have noted with distress how quickly a layer of dust falls in the house, and how it gets into every little nook.
Perhaps I have had unfinished business with Decay from before I was born. My house is built in the lee of a rocky slate hillock, very close, in fact, and as a result is haunted by damp, and, I am told, I was unwise to take up residence here, for Decay inhabits the hillock and makes the place its home. But I was acquainted with Decay before I came to this house, although I did not know then that our paths were so closely linked. When I was young we moved house several times, but each time we moved, it seemed, Decay would know our new address in advance and follow us there. I remember my depression at the mushrooms that grew in our bathroom, my shock at the rats that would climb from the drain and scamper across the dirty concrete yard. It was not just poverty. It was a family curse of which I could only be ashamed.
When mother passed away the house went to me. If it had been mine completely I might have sold it. But it belonged equally to my other siblings. Since they all had homes of their own they agreed to let me live in the house until such time as I might find another home, sell this one, and split the proceeds. Having arrived at early middle age without any other immediate means of securing a house of my own, I reluctantly took the opportunity, though for some reason the thought of moving in made my heart sink.
I thought I would soon move out. But there have been times when, posing alone before a bleary mirror, I have blessed the fate that allowed me to inherit this house and the leisure it affords. As long as I did not have to pay rent or mortgage, the income I earnt from a sloth's portion of translations and ghost writing was sufficient to my needs: Paper, pens, bread, tea bags and so on. The rest of my time I could dedicate to my own studies. I am still here.
Once a friend of mine, a die-hard Goth, asked me why I complained about Decay so much since I obviously thrived on it. At the time I replied that I found it aesthetically stimulating to come upon scenes of Decay outside, but that I abhorred it invading the house. Indeed, I even preferred a house to be starkly lit instead of gloomy. That, anyway, is how I answered. But I am a scribbler and must find beauty in my surroundings, whatever they might be, even in a hushed nightmare such as this house under the hill.
For a long time the only beauty described by my pen has been that of ghosts, and this final testimony, which will no doubt crumble beneath my hand when I lay down my pen, is no exception. There are ghosts in the lenses of my glasses and ghosts in the dirty window of my study. And when I look out of that window and see not sun nor sky nor world, but only a dripping slate wall thick with lichen and ferns, I am sure that compressed deep within the slate are flat fossils of ghosts. Theirs is a beauty similar to that of an old, muddy bottle dug up from the garden, an obscure and bleary beauty.
But the most terrible and most active ghost this house has known, and that I have been least inclined to describe directly, is Decay. When I took up my sad residence in my old room, the house was in a worse state than I had ever seen it before. At first I thought this was due to neglect, and failed to recognise the signs that another presence had made itself at home in the meantime, marking out its territory with slovenly animal habits.
I stood on the stepladder to sweep away all cobwebs. I hovered with a battered old machine till my back ached. I took a mop to the kitchen floor. I threw out all the disgusting rubbish that was piled beneath the stairs. I scraped away the rotting paint and the fungus on the bathroom wall and repainted. But a smell of must and mildrew remained, enough to tell me that the place was haunted. My clothes would have spots of mould on them after hanging up for a few days. The bathroom soon returned to its former squalid condition.
Indeed it was a sad and smelly ghost that haunted the house. I would feel it pass like the sound of weeping, grey as spores of mildew on the air, a horrible galumping monster that must always get its way. Vaguely sensing its presence I grew uneasy and took to locking the door to the back garden and fastening the bathroom window. But when I returned from shopping or rambling I would find both left open. At first I thought the wood so warped that I had failed to shut them properly. However, this explanation was clearly inadequate. Something was pitting itself against me. I remembered what my closest neighbour had told me, that Decay inhabited the hill. I felt an unknown hand rummage roughly through my heart. My normal feelings were flung into disarray. After that I found damp, shapeless footprints on the hall linoleum, too big for any man. Woodlice had gathered round them to feed, their feelers wavering in silent crustacean pleasure. Something jarred inside my head. My first grey hairs appeared on the instant. The knit of body and soul came loose and I began to unravel from a single thread of doubt and fear. One sight of those footprints and thenceforth my heart was occupied only by cloudy heaviness shot through with wincing pain.
No matter how often I shut the door and window, I would always find them open again, and slugs and snails making slimy inroads into the house. Finally I decided I could not go on suffering under this fear, and I went out to confront Decay.
I had not been out into the garden since Mother died. With no one to clear it away, the leaf mould had piled deep in the narrow passage behind the house. It sank like a waterlogged sponge beneath my feet. Here and there orange centipedes twisted to and fro, weaving their way like tiny Chinese dragons from one oozing cranny to another in the sour, tea-coloured swamp. White-legged spiders and other creeping things whose names I did not know jittered about softly. The steps leading up to the garden had all but lost their shape under the rotting leaves, and from where they turned left the way was strangled with brambles. I made it through, but not without pains.
The garden was on a steep slope, partitioned half way by a very tall hedge. Perhaps it was this steepness that had led to the garden being neglected even when Mother lived here. Now the place was so wild and overgrown it was shocking. The first thing to catch my eye when I finally tore myself away from the brambles was a large mound, some eight or nine feet high. It looked as if a compost heap or bonfire had been piled up and covered with soil until grass and weeds had taken root. I had never seen it before and somehow I knew this weedy monolith must mark the lair of Decay.
I stood before it and scared myself by raising my voice at it. My own shaky voice was answered by another that made the friable soil vibrate and slide. It was a jabbering, gargling, as if made by something with mouldy yoghurt for a larynx.
We had the following exchange:
'Why are you following me?'
'What are you doing here? This is my home.'
'What do you mean? Did my mother know you were here? Did she send you to look after me? Because if she did, I don't need you, and if she didn't you shouldn't be here!'
'You are mistaken! It's you who are following me around.'
It was too horrible talking to it in this way, and, lost for words, I retreated to the house.
One night I was awoken by a loud crashing noise. I hurried downstairs in my nightgown in time to catch a glimpse of some hulking thing moving in the hall. I must have seen a shoulder and part of the head before it disappeared out the front door. I had an impression of something grey and shaggy, as tangled as the wildest of grasses. The air was full of the smell of earth. The back door was wide open again, and all downstairs was full of dead leaves and mud. There were crawling things everywhere. Close to tears I swept them up with a dustpan and brush and flung them outside, screaming, 'Keep out the wild! Keep out the wild!' in hysterical fury.
It was after this that I decided to get in touch with a friend who did odd decorating jobs and have a damp course put in, hoping it might ward off Decay from these walls. Dave started on the bathroom. But two days had not passed before something terrible happened. Once again I was woken by a tumult in the night. This time I found the flat roof above the bathroom had collapsed in a mess of soggy chipboard and plaster. Dave was apologetic, saying he had not realised how far gone the roof was, but I knew it was not his fault. I asked him to repair the roof and leave it at that. I must have appeared very nervous and flustered, and he did not ask me why I had changed my mind about the damp course.
So I gave in. I surrendered. Decay must have noticed this too, because things began to change. At night, on the chair beside my bed, I would find scummy cocoa waiting for me in an unwashed mug. In the morning slippers would be laid out, silver with the trails of slugs. Sometimes, as I was about to drop off to sleep, I would feel great, shaggy paws tucking me in. At any time of the day or night I might catch a glimpse of Decay on its way to or from somewhere. Wrapped up in sheets dark with dirt and rustling with dead leaves, insects crawling over my pillow, I would listen to the wind. Taken by reveries I would later write down in a trance, I sipped at my cocoa, not caring about the snail on the rim of the mug, or the fly floating on its back in foam like that which bubbles from a snail's foot, or the strange earthy taste that lingered in my mouth. I had never known such comfort.
Some years passed in this way. Decay did indeed seem to watch over me. But somehow it contrived never to let me see it in its entirety. A huge and tangled paw would set a tray before me, or a lumpy silhouette would lope through the back door. Often I would feel sleepy, as if I had nodded off for a moment and forgotten what was happening. As in a creaky old film, horror may be soporific, even opiate, in its effect. But the more toadstools that sprouted from the banisters, the more the wallpaper peeled away to reveal rings of mould, the more crawling things infested the place, the more luxurious it seemed to me. There was little difference between inside the house and outside, and I was just one creature living under the same stone as many others.
I had great insights into the beauty of Decay, under whose wing I sheltered, and I filled many notebooks, my words piling up like beautiful dust. When I think of all the exquisite ghosts that were pressed between those pages like dreary flowers I almost wish to weep. But they were not destined for the eyes of the world.
One day Decay went too far. I entered my study to continue piling up the precious dust of my words. My notebook lay open on the desk, but something was wrong. The paper had turned tea-brown since I had sat there last. With a groan I picked up the book, only to have it crumble away in my fingers. I looked to my other volumes.
Why must Decay poke its nose into everything? Is nothing private? Iis nothing sacred? Where those snuffling eyes had been the paper was crumbling, or mouldy, or eaten by worms and earwigs, the ink faded and illegible. It had all been for nothing. I had offered up my life to Decay, and in return, Decay, the supreme vandal, had cheated me even of my reason for doing so.
I was ruined, as if struck by lightening, but with that sudden ruin came determination. Decay was the Enemy. I understood that at last. My mouth bitter, my jaw set, I took up the old spade from beneath the stairs and went up into the garden to oust Decay from its lair.
Twilight was thickening. Decay was stumbling back from some foray abroad. I saw its mass of grey tendrils as it began to hunker down into the hole beneath the mound. Without a word I raised the spade to strike it down. But what I had thought was its back was its face. It saw me plainly and with a terrible bellow fell upon me, knocking the spade form my hands. There followed a breathless tussle. All deceit had vanished in an instant, and there was only this deadly struggle between me and the monster, a struggle that had been going on in spirit for years. I was thrown to the ground, and seeing the spade within my grasp, I seized it, leapt to my feet and in one blow clove Decay's rotten, matted head in two. Some toxic vapour hissed out from the gash, and the thing thundered to the ground where it turned immediately to compost and muck. I felt weak, ready to collapse. When I made my way back to the house I looked into the mirror to see a bent figure with grey hair and grey, withered skin. The struggle had taken a heavy toll. I fell to my knees and sobbed.
That was some time ago. Now the house and garden are mine. Just as the inside of the house has come to resemble the outside, so now I often spend my time in the garden as if it were the house. Sometimes I even sleep in that hole beneath the mound. It does not trouble me to feel the earthworms stretch themselves across my skin. I am master in my own house and may enjoy such luxuries freely. People hereabouts say the place is still haunted by Decay. I know better. There is only me here now, and I am at peace.
(C) Quentin S. Crisp 2001
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.