Richard Gavin began writing horror in childhood. Since that time his works have appeared in nearly a hundred publications around the world. He has earned several 'Honorable Mentions' in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror (St. Martin's Press, U.S.A.), and his story 'Berenice's Journal' was recommended for the prestigious Bram Stoker Award. Many of these stories have been collected in the book Charnel Wine, which Rainfall Books will be releasing in early 2004. Richard lives in Ontario, Canada, where he is seldom seen during daylight hours.
I do not know how or when the Horror began, nor do I have any hope of ever comprehending why I sought to achieve communion with it. Like you, I am restricted to conceiving and sharing the details of my own individual role within this Horror (a role that was brief, peripheral, and painfully inconclusive), rather than being able to conceive the totality of this Horror.
My personal role began during a highly disruptive phase of my life. I had been plagued with numerous anxieties prior to any supernatural intrusion. Some of these anxieties had no basis in physical reality, others did. But because of my condition, I had always felt that my grasp on reality was tenuous at best. Teetering on the cusp of sanity was a constant struggle. I lived in endless terror of what I might find waiting for me if I ever tumbled beyond the brink of reason.
Ironically, it was only after I submitted myself to an existence at the very heart of my Horror that I found peace. Dwelling in a womb of blood and brimstone, my days became malleable, my nights infinite. And whenever I did emerge from the psychic sanctuary I'd conjured for myself, I found the material world intolerable. Outside my private Hell-haven, I was a lost soul, a transient in a world whose rigid laws seemed utterly pointless.
Sadly, many of the details of my experience are distorted by two irrevocable impurities. The first is the mechanics of human memory, whose natural tendency is to opiate our most horrendous experiences until they become nostalgias that we long for in our autumn years. The second impurity stems from the falsely surrealistic worldview that is brought on by insomnia; a condition that plagued me then, and, on occasion, does still.
My Season of Damnation (as I like to call it to appease the poetic yearnings of my imagination) began on the night of the summer solstice.
That year I had found employment in a plant that manufactured steel fittings. I was never told exactly what type of machinery the fittings were designed to service, but was only told by the gruff foreman at the beginning of my first shift that my sole concern was 'to make sure that this part,' he said, holding up a steel elbow joint, 'and this part' (holding up a length of steel tubing) 'join together snugly at the seam. Understand?'
And so from dawn until just after noon each day I was hunched between towers of archaic machinery, studying the same steel fittings that paraded past me on a wobbly conveyer belt. I would mindlessly inspect them, and by my rough calculation approximately one in every thirty fittings was defective. There were undoubtedly more unusable pieces, but I was often too tired or simply too disinterested to be more diligent in my inspection. The job was lonely and mindless, but was not without its advantages; namely the fact that I did not really have to concentrate or speak to anyone for the majority of my shift. Usually the only time I would open my mouth was when the foreman swaggered by to, as he put it, "make sure things were flowing smooth as milk.
The nature of the job allowed me to spend a great deal of time meditating upon a queer hobby that was born of my insomniac's mind...
I don't know how I ever came to discover Gideon's; the town's "purveyor of old paper". It was most likely during one of my late-night wanderings through the "town square" - a cluster of shops and cafes nestled within a concentrated area that was designed to resemble a Victorian marketplace; complete with cobblestone walkways, streetlamps crafted in the style of gaslights, and shops with red-brick facades and hand-carved hanging signs. Much to the dismay of the town square retailers, the average customer seemed to prefer the air-conditioned sanctuary of the nearby mall; because of the twenty or so storefronts within the square only nine were occupied. The others were coffined up with sun-faded "Space for Lease" signs, their interiors hollowed of everything but dust and darkness.
Of those few businesses that did manage to stay afloat, Gideon's was the only one that interested me. His shop provided me with many hours of aesthetic indulgence. Its basement-like showroom was crammed with every manner of paper product one could imagine: sepia-toned photographs of nameless people and forgotten places, yellowed newspapers that detailed long-forgotten events, obscure books whose leaves were riddled with silverfish, even stacks of handwritten letters which Gideon bound with scarlet ribbon and sold for five dollars per stack.
Stranger than the inventory was the fact that Gideon's never seemed to close. Rarely did I ever encounter another patron inside the shop. Yet no matter what time I stopped in, whether during my lunch-hour or in the thick of pre-dawn darkness, Gideon was always there, apparently waiting for me, always dressed in the same threadbare cardigan sweater and always nursing a cup of strong-smelling black coffee.
After he'd had enough time to study my buying habits, Gideon began to cater to my eccentric tastes. He would often stash an item or two behind the counter for me to examine during my frequent visits. Usually these items were little more than hackneyed tabloid confessionals involving extraterrestrial abductions, or were cheap paperbacks that detailed particularly grisly crimes, but every so often Gideon would produce a true gem whose aura of otherness suited me perfectly.
I can't imagine that the old man had a more loyal customer than me.
It was only after I had amassed a rather sizeable collection of grim and Fortean literature that my hobby began to evolve into something more than the act of merely collecting old paper.
The initial idea had come to me during yet another restless night. And it was a veritable revelation. I rummaged about my apartment until I found the old scrapbook I'd been given as a Yuletide gift many years prior. In this I began to selectively paste the choicest photographs and news clippings from my collection. Initially these collages were assembled for purely artistic reasons; configuring creased photographs beside strips of newsprint in just the right manner.
It was some time before I realized that what I was actually doing was constructing my own twisted history of this little town.
By pasting an arbitrary photograph alongside a totally unrelated news-clipping, I reconstructed reality. (I recall one of my creations, an early favourite of mine, which featured a photograph of a cherubic young girl pasted above an unrelated article on a rash of unsolved strangling murders that were taking place in and around the town's harbour district at the turn of the century.)
As with all creative endeavours, my fabricated history books quickly assumed a life of their own. Gideon began to provide me with increasingly stranger material to work with; almost all of which chronicled the more grim events of human life, or offered even grimmer speculations about the elements of life that remain hidden from us in the course of our day-to-day existences.
I don't know whether my histories grew stranger because of this new source material, or whether my source material became more deranged to suit my creation. But regardless of the reason, the pages of my scrapbooks quickly began to fill with images of cadavers whose eyes I had replaced with almond-shaped slivers of tinfoil so that they would shimmer like mercury drops. I used very thin razorblades to reconfigure pictures of century-old farmhouses until they resembled Daliesque palaces. I inserted tiny monster faces where their windows would have been; filling their vacant rooms with beasts.
Although it felt very proper, very right, to be creating what I was creating, my work eventually led to my suffering severe nightmares.
None of the actual images or events of these dreams were perceivable, but their impact certainly was, and my already brief teases of slumber were soon disrupted by night terrors. Needless to say, waking up in a room filled with ghoulish scrapbooks was anything but a comfort.
By this time my pre-dawn explorations of the town had become a nightly occurrence. These treks were not the result of insomnia, but were due to another terrible compulsion I had developed: a voracious appetite for amphetamines.
I had only looked to narcotics after my nightmares became too much for me to bear. A young man on the factory staff had introduced me to the pills. He often earned extra money by peddling various illegal substances to coworkers during lunch breaks or between shifts. But none of his less abrasive drugs were able to erase the dreams, so I resorted to popping four or five of the little egg-shaped amphetamines to stave off sleep altogether.
When slumber did become unavoidable, I found that the effect of the night terrors had been dulled. Initially I believed the drugs were responsible for this, but I now know that it was because I had already begun to embrace the reality of the Horror I had unwittingly been perpetuating.
The amphetamines, once used to exorcise my night terrors, were eventually utilized for the opposite purpose: I required chemical stimulation in order to stay awake and create more of my scrapbooks, now the only thing I cared about.
My customary routine became to steal a short nap upon returning home from my shift at the fitting plant, awake and eat whatever food I had on hand before venturing out to Gideon's. Later I would return home with a bundle of new material. I would then ingest a few amphetamines to sustain me through the moonlit hours, which I spent gleefully cut-and-pasting the grotesquery I now desperately wanted the outer world to conform to.
Looking back, I now realize just how palpable the presence in my home was. Crouched over a coffee table that was tattooed with blotches of dried glue, tiny wedges of cut paper and mounds of musty newsprint, I would often feel the back of my neck pucker with gooseflesh. And whenever I did peer over my shoulder I fully expected to discover something looming directly behind me.
Although my eyes never detected anything during those many late nights, my spirit certainly did. (Little did I know that I would soon witness my visitor as a tangible entity.)
This self-destructive existence went on for longer than I care to admit. I constantly questioned myself about why I had allowed my delusions to overtake my life so thoroughly. But it was only after I lost my job at the fitting plant, and my subsequent lack of finances forced me to move into a crumbling boarding house in the most impoverished end of town, that I began to perceive my work in a larger context; a facet of a paradigm that was broader than my own meagre compulsions. I was struck with the feeling that all my efforts were actually leading somewhere. It felt as if all the mad chronicles, all the drug-soaked dreams, all the night terrors, were in fact a prelude; a preparation for something that was yet to occur.
My work reached its critical mass during a late-night walk. Instead of wandering to Gideon's, I impulsively chose to take a more rustic route, one that led me out of the residential district and onto a dirt road that wound its way toward the farmer's properties beyond the town limits.
While I wandered past the green fields whose flora shivered and nodded in the night wind, my brain hummed from the effects of the handful of pills I'd gobbled earlier in the evening. Autumn had already harvested the area, leaving desiccated leaves and a chill in its wake.
As I staggered through the open landscape I suddenly spotted a strange edifice jutting up from the barren land, reaching contortedly to the sky.
All other details of my surroundings were instantly stilled, muted. The house became the All.
It was situated at the edge of what was once a sprawling cornfield, but was now a wasteland of curled husks and withered shocks. What drew my attention to this structure, the element that made it so eerily compelling, was the fact that it was an exact replica of one of the mutilated homes I had constructed for my history books. It hosted the same towering, needle-thin foundation, the same claw-like design, with its rooms sprouting up in individual turrets like curled fingers, and the same oblique lean, as though the house was a bird of prey looming over the earth.
Entranced by my own disbelief, I found myself wandering in the direction of the outlandish house. The dead plants crunched beneath my heels. A small, diabolical core of my imagination throbbed with countless images relating to the house. I allowed these visions to wash over me, caring little that none of them had any basis in reality. Obviously the house was not really composed of primal sludge and brimstone, nor was it built by a legion of arch-daemons. But that was how I envisioned the history of the house, and so, for a brief time, that was its authentic history.
I used this same diabolical imagination to navigate me around the parameter of the structure, to a large door that looked as though it had been fashioned out of hardened mulch. I was not at all surprised to find the door unlocked, nor was I shocked at how inviting the house's interior felt when I crossed the threshold and moved into the windowless foyer.
The air was stale, rife with various aromas of decay. I stood in the darkness for a few thoughtful moments before concluding that if I did not explore as much of the house as I could before this hallucination ended, regret would send me to an early grave.
I shuffled forward, groping the shadows until my hands closed over the cold firmness of a steel railing. One by one I scaled the cragged steps that ascended through the house in a hysterical spiral pattern. Some of the steps were only a few inches high, others were so steep they actually required the use of my arms to hoist myself up. At the end of my climb I was standing within a large circular room whose walls must have been made entirely of glass, for I could see the sky's vast nightscape churning and glinting all around me.
A crescent moon primed the room in soft illumination, affording me a vague glimpse of the figure that was seated behind a large table at one end of the room.
In the substandard light the figure resembled the silhouette of a man. No features were visible other than the basic outline of his slight, motionless body. From my vantage point the figure appeared to be bald, for his cranium looked perfectly oval-shaped in the semi-darkness. The same could be said for the area where its face should be, for I could only discern a perfectly smooth surface of shadow perched upon the spindly neck.
I took a step forward but the figure raised its hand.
'That's not necessary,' it said. The voice was soft and rather androgynous. 'I need only to speak with you. We have been monitoring your efforts for some time now.'
The figure gestured toward the desktop, which I could then see was littered with a variety of books. The figure flipped one open, apparently at random, tilting its head to the open volume. It then began to nod - a gesture I took to be a sign of approval.
'On the whole we deem your documentation to be exceptional.'
'But...' was the only word I managed.
'Fictions,' I replied. 'Merely fictions.'
'Artifice,' it gushed, 'the secret definition of beauty.'
Its statement bewildered me. The figure closed the volume tenderly. I felt my brow furrowing; a habit of mine that I unconsciously do whenever I am perplexed. I couldn't help but wonder if the books on the desk were actually the ones I'd created. But how could they have gotten out of my apartment, and why? No one but me knew of their existence. No one but me could appreciate their import.
No one, perhaps, except the entity before me.
'You needn't worry about your documents,' it said. Its obscured form moved out from behind the desk. It took three slow steps toward the centre of the room. 'We have taken the liberty of depositing them here; a place where there is no risk of them falling into the wrong hands. It is time that you and I discussed the next phase of the Revealing.'
As the figure drew nearer, a powerful feeling of vertigo began to overtake me. The floor beneath me softened. The light from beyond the windows started to ripple, to fade out, and then instantly brighten again. In this funhouse illumination the figure appeared to be surrounded by a deep blue glow. This palsied aura flowed off the dark shape like heat waves, yet the figure cast off no warmth, not even when it reached its fuming hand toward me.
I staggered backward, repulsed at the very thought of those grim fingers pressing against my skin. I began to make my way down the crazy staircase, but when I finally reached the bottom step I found the figure waiting for me. His black form filled the doorframe.
Before I collapsed into a slumber of indeterminable length, I heard the figure pronounce:
'Your reception of the prophecy is unavoidable...'
I awoke to find myself slumped upon a mound of smashed bricks and cinderblocks. My body was being lashed by a cold wind that smelled of burning leaves. My head ached terribly.
I stood up feebly, glancing at the charred hull of an old farmhouse that had clearly been ravaged by a fire many years previously. I stood in the centre of the ruins, looking over the scabby, soot-smeared brickwork. Only a small portion of one wall remained standing.
'It was the pills,' I told myself as my eyes fell upon the human-looking silhouette that the smoke residue had left upon that last remaining wall, 'Pills and poor lighting, nothing more.'
Somehow I managed to carry myself back to my room, which, as I discovered immediately upon entering, had been burglarized. The thieves had ransacked what few possessions I did own before escaping through a shattered window. I reported the robbery to the police, and submitted to them a list of items that had been stolen. These included my television set, a few CDs, and, of course, the boxes containing my scrapbooks and all the material I had purchased from Gideon's.
When I asked one of the officers what the odds were of any of my possessions being recovered she shrugged her shoulders, informing me that the police had 'far worse things to work on than this.' In one respect her observation was true, yet in another it wasn't.
I visited Gideon's some time after the robbery. He was sympathetic to my case but explained that almost all the items he'd sold me were irreplaceable. Perhaps this is just as well, for I can now live out the rest of my days without any physical reminders of the documents that led to my being noticed by the hidden sentinels of this world.
And the "next phase" that the shadowed one spoke of? I am quite certain that you will remain immune from the effects of this prophecy. I believe it is solely my destiny to apprehend "the Revealing". This unfettering of conjured forms, this influx of impossibilities, this damnation, is meant for me alone. Whether it was created by me or dealt to me by providence is irrelevant. Yours will remain a sheltered, vibrant world. Mine is a gaunt and morbid place.
Nightly I can sense the chimeras of my imagination tumbling into the unlit corners of this hovel that houses me. The grotesques of my insomniac dreams have peeled themselves from the brittle paper of scrapbooks to become my sole companions. With them alone do I wander the slums, beneath a sky alight with crooked stars, in a town whose twisting streets lead to nowhere.
(C) Richard Gavin 2004
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.