Hellraiser

Eddie M(onica) Angerhuber was born in Munich in 1965, and has lived in Berlin since 1981. Her dark, surrealistic fiction has been published in a number of German and English magazines and anthologies including Edition Medusenblut, Fleurie, Daedalos, Der Agnostische Saal and The Dream Zone. She has had four collections and a novel published in Germany, and in 2002 her first English collection, Nocturnal Products, came out to critical success. If all that wasn't enough, she has translated such authors as Robert - Psycho - Bloch, Thomas Ligotti, Ramsey Campbell and Terry Lamsley into German. Her website can be found at: www.angwa.de.vu

--------------------------------------------------------------

At the end of November, I lost my job in the administration building and found myself in a situation I had never known before. I had worked in the administration building for many years and never thought about what would happen if this should ever change. You could say that I was naive, but I had never suspected any necessity to make plans for this special kind of situation. Most of my co-workers had their jobs for years on end and were now just waiting for the time to retire. I hadn't reckoned that they would think first of me, when they found that the time was right for outsourcing and reorganisation. Suddenly, my everyday life had changed in a way I couldn't easily adapt to. I wasn't able to rise late, for I was used to waking minutes before the alarm-clock started to shrill. Even if I had thrown the infernal thing away, I would have still woke at the same hour.

I tried my best to spend my days with a sense of purpose, but that wasn't easy at all. The hours stretched viscously like rubber bands; before the second week had passed, I felt myself gripped by a wearing boredom that I knew I would have to fight with all my strength. Every effort I made to get a new job was unsuccessful. Although I read the advertisements in every newspaper and wrote countless application letters, I received nothing but negative replies. I was still young, yet it seemed as if my knowledge and skills were already out-dated. I could not keep up with my younger and more educated fellow competitors. But I wasn't ready to accept that yet. I would have to show a bit more patience, not give up and keep looking for a chance. Others were even less fortunate than me...others had been unemployed for years...some of them for many years. 

In the meantime, January had come - the month which fills every backyard in the city with mist and smoke until they look like pale spectres of healthier backyards that might have died in a lavish past. I sat at my kitchen table and let my eyes roam idly around. My apartment was on the fourth floor, so I could overlook the surrounding roofs with their aerials and chimneys and floating smoke streaks. These roofs might have been red in former times; some crimson, others brick-red; now their colours had faded to a indistinguable, drab greyish-brown which made a perfect background for my disillusioned daydreams.

I sat at my kitchen table, my hands cupped around a big mug of coffee. The waning warmth of that coffee caressed my palms, apparently it was the only source of warmth in my cold apartment, which smelled of old smoke and dust. I let my eyes wander over the backyard and counted the aerials and chimneys, the windows in the other buildings, the birds in the sky. There were only the clouds I couldn't count; they had mingled to a uniform, dark grey layer which shut out the wintry blue sky and reduced the sun to an ailing orb of light which could hardly penetrate through.

There it is - distance, I said to myself. Infinite distance, mile after mile in each direction, more than a man could walk in all his life. And I'm sitting here at the kitchen window, watching the sky, instead of reaching for the stars.

No stars were visible through the impenetrable wall of clouds that held the world imprisoned.

After counting the chimneys, I began to go for long walks, out of sheer boredom. They brought me to districts of my town I had never visited before. I crossed the spectres of vast boulevards that might have been teeming with people and parades in former times. They lay bleak and abandoned in the grey January haze. Only now and then would the footsteps of a lonely walker disturb the dim quietude of those streets and tear apart the forlorn dream I was entangled in. I walked with the instinctive certainty of movement that results from being entirely absent-minded, and I hardly felt the wind touch my eyes. The wind was in the streets, a lonely wanderer like me. It crept around me like a dog, flew before me, rustled in waste paper on the sidewalk, rushed playfully through the heaps of last year's leafage. The wind made the pennants in front of junk shops flap and whistled softly between the pillars of bridges that I crossed without looking down on the water which lay stagnant like a leaden plain.

My walks even led me into the governmental district where I had been working in the huge administration complex. I had never before crossed it on foot, it was located too far from my apartment. Yet my stamina seemed to grow with each walk, and the asphalt on the streets began to feel like soft, yielding lawn under my feet.

The window-sockets of the administration building were empty and black as I looked up at them. I couldn't fight the impression that these windows were naked and yawning into the waning light. Could it be possible that the building had been abandoned? Was this the reason why all employees had been dismissed? Had the other workers also been dismissed now? With a lack of real enthusiasm, I rattled at the wings of the heavy front door, but they were locked. I went away without looking back, headed towards the darkening horizon. Waste paper played around my feet on my way. Not newspapers but white typing paper, covered by a narrow, pale print. Files? Did I know them? Could my own curriculum vitae possibly be printed on them? 

'The endless monotony of days,' I repeated to myself while my eyes followed the papers on their flight across the street.

On February lst, I had a job interview. There had been only one reply to my applications, and I grew quite nervous while I made myself ready to leave for it. My hair didn't sit, I had probably neglected tending it for too long. My tie wouldn't stay straight. My long overcoat was still wet from a rainy walk the day before. Finally, I gave up the futile effort to make myself look tidy and rushed out of my apartment.

For the first time in weeks, I used public transport. It was cold outside, and the wind came howling along with the suburban rail as I waited on the platform. Old newspapers rustled in a litter bin. I entered the train and succumbed to the comfortable warmth of the wagon. For the first time I looked out of the window as the train went on its way. I had always read a newspaper while going to work; I had never taken notice of my fellow passengers. But now I saw the rear walls of buildings along streets that I had walked recently. They appeared alien and bare to me, the paint was peeling and the brickwork below showed itself in broad fissures. For the first time, I saw the other side of my town.

When I left the office building where a disinterested employee had questioned me, the wind was so sharp and chilly that it hurt my eyes. I took the suburban rail and made a long detour back home. I wasn't in a hurry. I saw the rear walls of the houses, the large, naked plains of industrial areas, the empty streets. A faint drizzle covered the window panes of the train with tiny pearls of light that blurred the outside world. I didn't know where I was when I left the train. An unknown platform presented itself to the wind, lightless, without a living soul around.

The town seemed to be all but deserted.

This forgotten part of town had cast a strange spell upon me. As I travelled along via the suburban rail, my face pressed against the window, my eyes gazed aimlessly at the shades of grey the town offered to me. It looked bleak and humiliated. The wind had been gnawing at the unprotected spots with its steady tooth; the rain had washed away all colours. Snow fell in watery flakes to dissolve upon settling. All the waters of heaven seemed to mingle with the greyness of the earth to form a streaky, muddy film that covered the surface of the world.

When the weak daylight waned and darkness was imminent, the empty warehouses on the banks of the river seemed to transport aspects of threat via their black windows, rusty cranes and slippery staircases that stooped down to the waterline. There was never a boat or ship upon the river, only the shaggy ducks and swans that had gone grey before their time; they indulged to the rocking motion of the water that cradled them with oily softness.

'The endless monotony of days,' I whispered to myself in the rhythm of my footsteps. Only the shining tracks of the railway line seemed to be alive; only they seemed to be in regular use.

The trains arrived and left while I waited on the platform. I was a passenger at the rear side of the city, always on the search for magnificent sights of desolation. The ghostly emptiness of my town had enchanted me. Buildings, squares and churches fascinated me above all when they were no longer in use. The long absence of an audience allowed heaps of waste and dirt to pile up to secret signs in front of their doors; time and the rain wrote illegible ciphers upon their damp walls. I recognized the beauty of decay and its secret temptation that breathed out of basement grids, and the fragile patterns of rust and mould instead of human writing.

Whoever tried to read these signs would know the truth about this deserted side of town - that much I knew. But still I didn't understand the true nature of things. I was only a spectator, not an initiate. I still hoped to explore the heart of darkness.

The heart of darkness would sometimes reveal itself - if only for a split second - when the train pulled past the fire-blackened ruin of a warehouse, or when the wind tore a poster from a hoarding and the wood beneath glistened black with rain. Now and then, you could catch a glimpse of it during daytime, when the sky was covered with leaden-grey clouds and the drizzle mingled with tiny ice crystals; when the asphalt of the streets looked like a shining sea of blackness. More often, though, it could be seen at night when black is the natural tint of all things. I learnt to love the twilight hour when all the colours seemed to bleed in lean columns of smoke that rose to the sky, so that the earthly monotony could dye the clouds grey. Or was it rather the greyness of the sky that dripped downwards in thin rivulets to give the world a darker tint?

Now I wished that the trains had no lights; it was much too bright inside, and the vulgar electric light destroyed the magic nuances of the outside world. I had been deciding whether it would be preferable to go hunting on foot, but I had come to the decision that this would make my progress too slow to follow the twilight border from district to district. I now used the suburban rail to chase after the twilight border. While daylight was still bright in one district, darkness could just be falling in another. It was delightful to cross this limit in rapid motion. This way I succumbed to the delusion that the heart of darkness could be evoked by will. I pretended not to know that it wouldn't allow anyone to manipulate it.

Things don't allow anyone to manipulate them. They manipulate us. I travelled; but time travelled faster than me and prevented my access. I ran, but the streets flew from my feet and concentrated to higher density at other places. Darkness seemed to flee me. Where it had given me the chance of short, inspiring insights that would reveal themselves suddenly in empty window-sockets or stair less entranceways, now it drew itself away from me. At least this was how it seemed to me. I had expanded my search radius to the outer suburbs by that time, places where I'd never been in all my life, and where only a few factory buildings on vast, empty plains withstood the furious attacks of winter storms. I vaguely remembered that I'd always been fond of classic industrial architecture, but my memory was so blurred, as if this had happened in a forn1er life. The brick giants of a long gone era emitted the unbroken, majestic calmness of decay. l11e sighs of thousands of workers, crippled by inhuman machines, seemed to playa tearful crescendo in the crumbling chimney stacks.

I knew for sure that those were the places I had to look for. The heart of darkness must hide there. It was foolish to search the townfor it, even if the town's population seemed to decrease; even when its inhabitants - just like me - had become pale spectres of their former selves.

Many weeks had passed. I didn't know the exact date. Perhaps spring should already have come; perhaps winter should have vanished long ago. Yet for me, and for this deserted part of town, time elongated to an infinite bleak season where the joys of solitude joined the slow dwindling of all life. Perhaps I had breathed the cellar scent too eagerly, perhaps I had looked too deep into the leaden waters to ever see the sun rise again. Perhaps this forgotten part of town had already swallowed me, just as I had savoured its sites like a starving man, pressed against the window of my railway wagon. Perhaps I had enjoyed the heart of darkness to the full, and eternal twilight would embrace me without return, without tomorrow. The stars stood still in the sky; raindrops hung in the air like silken threads, unable to complete their fall.

I yearned for the final revelation. And eventually the town dropped its mask for me.

I first noticed the changes during my walks along the riverside, where the mangy ducks and swans that had gone grey before their time bobbed up and down in the water. As always, I had bowed down to catch a glimpse of their lifeless eyes, and the foul breath of the river had touched me like a kiss, so that I yielded to it. That was the moment when I first saw the patterns. Closely above the waterline, they wound over the slimy square stone blocks of the mole, intricately chiselled filigree like the winding tunnels of woodworms - except there are no woodworms able to eat through stone. The patterns formed a thin, unbroken line and spiralled in graceful arabesques. They glowed from the inside, as if a pond of lava were boiling underneath the river. I could see the same glow underwater.

Things had started to change. Now it was my turn to read their secret ciphers.

This insight frightened and fascinated me at the same time. I didn't know whether I would be able to face the final revelation. And yet I knew that I must experience it. There was no other way. After all, I had been the one who asked for the changes. I had caused the changes with my search for the hidden side of things. This side isn't hidden just for fun. There's a certain meaning behind everything - that much I could easily understand. I had always suspected things had a second face, but I hadn't known what it would look like. Now that I was scratching at the cracks in the paint that covered the second face, I was afraid and yet I also felt the ecstatic sensation of my own transitoriness. For when I belonged to this side, I would of course vanish when the other side came to light.

Soon I found the glowing patterns I had seen at the riverside at other sites; first only in the dark of night, later even in daylight. First at hidden spots that withdrew from the townspeoples' eyes, but soon also at squares and places open to the general public. Red lava seemed to well under the concrete surface of railway platforms; fiery veins crept over the glass fronts of high-rises in the quarter where the stock market was located; and in the middle of a pitch black night the gothic turret of the cathedral flashed like a flaming finger to indicate our near decline.

My kitchen table and my coffee mug showed fiery fissures as I, cowering at the window, let my eyes roam idly over my backyard and the surrounding roofs. Where there had been aerials and chimneys, now deformities like tentacles or black corals reached into the sable-tinted sky. Their tips writhed and wavered in the night breeze. For a moment I thought I heard the hollow sighs of crippled workers echoing in the tall shafts of factory stacks. Of course this, too, was only a delusion. The air was filled with a shiver of anticipation, and the velvety flank of the sky lapped waves like the surface of a lake. At the bottom of my coffee mug, a red spot gleamed like a tiny sun that stretched its rays towards me.

I stood before my mirror. I hadn't shaved and combed my hair for weeks, and it was the face of a hollow-cheeked fanatic that stared back at me. Golden cracks covered his eyes like tiny spiderwebs. I opened my mouth to say 'The endless monotony of days,' as if it were a password that would gain me entry into the vortex of the night. The mirror split with an electric crackle, and the surface that had covered everything crumpled up like thin foil. I looked into a mirror of blackness that throbbed like a gigantic heart while all sounds around me died and all lights went out and all colours streamed into one.

When I entered the street, the world I had known was no more. Buildings and churches seemed to have turned inside-out; their skins twisted and pulsated with life. Swollen veins wound along walls and over streets. The town - the heart of darkness. There it lay.

And I was on the inside.

 

 

(C) Eddie M. Angerhuber 2002

   

                                                                                                                         

© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.