Author’s note: So to conclude my week of horror and doom, here’s my own take on a Lovecraftian horror story. Let it be known that I am not much of a short story-writer, so don’t expect to be scared too much.
There is a strange fascination with the dark that humankind had since its dawn. I never truly understood how people were frightened by shadows that were cast in the night as if they expected that the lack of light would create creatures and demons out of nothing, make things appear that during daytime were hiding or simply only came into existence after nightfall. I thought everyone a fool who would sleep with the lights on. But not anymore.
I remember that my dear friend Johanna was always drawn to the macabre and therefore loved everything that played into the fear of the dark. When we met in college and shared a room, her side was painted black and only candles were used as a source of light because she liked how the flickering flames cast ever-changing shadows on my walls that were opposite to her black side of the room and that were plain and white without even a poster except my curriculum neatly placed right over my desk.
I was never one for superstition or longing for the fantastic, so Johanna and I couldn’t have been more different. While I studied biology and took a liking to the logical aspects of philosophy,she ventured into foreign religions, the psychology of mythologies and the arts of ancient cultures. I wanted to see what the world was made of and how it came together whereas she wanted to know what the world had to offer that was beyond our scientific understanding. We had many discussions late at night over a glass of wine, her defending all those petty things that made bump in the night and me trying to reason with her and her warped worldview. I thought that she was naive and it annoyed me that she refused to see the world as it was. It was no wonder, then, that we would lose sight of each other after we graduated. I stayed at the university and taught young inquisitive minds whilst doing research on soundwaves and their effects on living matter. Only occasionally did I stumble over Johanna’s name who had ventured into the weird and dubious world of art. She had become a name in her own right, a new, exciting painter that shocked the critics and fans alike with her grotesque visions of everyday life. Her inspiration seemed to come from German expressionism and the cold yet wildly chaotic imagery of the creative minds during war-times. Once, she invited me to an exhibition close to my home but I politely declined because her paintings made me feel uncomfortable.
I guess, that’s why I never expected her to call me and was startled when I heard her voice on the phone one day.
“Clara, you need to come”, was all she said and it took me a moment before I recognized her voice.
“Johanna, is that you?”
“You need to see my new project.”
“Johanna, I am sorry, I couldn’t come last time but I was awfully busy. Are you ok?” I had an uneasy feeling because her voice was uncommonly calm, nearly apathetic. Never had I heard her talk like that, she was always passionate and excited.
“It’s ok, it wasn’t good anyway. But my new project, it really is quite something, Clara, you have to see it, I want you to be the first person to see it with your own eyes.”
“I can’t just leave my things and travel through the country to meet…”
“-I am right here in Cardiff, I will send you a cab.” There was a flicker of her old self in that sentence, her voice jumped a little and I remembered fondly how she had shown me her sketches back in the days. Whenever she talked about her ideas, it was so tender and caring as if she was talking about her children. Although that might seem strange and excentric for most, I always liked that about her even if I hardly ever liked her ‘projects’.
“Well, when do you have time?” I hoped, she would name the next week or even the next day. I would have enough time to make up an excuse – work, being sick or having a date with a friend – but as if she knew that I didn’t want to make it to her place, she said: “Now.”
I still thought of calling her back and canceling the meeting when the cab driver rang my bell and only on the way to the car did I realize that I didn’t even have her number nor did I know where we would go.
“I’m sorry, I forgot to ask my friend where we…”
“It’s ok, I know where we’re going”, said the driver in a gruff voice. I sat in the back and looked out of the window to see where he would take me. It was night and it rained outside, so the lights of the city created blurry spectres of colour and obstructed street signs and shop names and after a while I gave up trying to orient myself and my mind started to wander. Why would she call me to see her project? I never cared much for art and I never took much interest in her foul and horrific depictions of the netherworld. Surely, she knew enough people who would appreciate her art and be able to critic it accordingly. Maybe it was not about the art, though, and all she needed was an old friend who would talk to her and not to the artist that she was.
I wanted to pay the man but he waved the money away.
“She already paid.”
“Where are we?”
With that, he got into his car and drove off. I should have paid him to wait for me but I could call another cab anytime, besides, he hadn’t looked as if he wanted to wait at this place.
Collington Grove was nothing but an empty street that led to a once pompous manor that had been destroyed during the Second World War and had been rebuilt by a modernistic designer in the late 60s. Where once high towers, marble sculptures and ornaments had complimented the surrounding trees, now a cold, grey cubic with glass walls sprouted in the middle of a park like a strange, foreign fungus. There were no lights on and I approached cautiously. I heard my footsteps on the gravel and the only thing I heard besides my own steps was a soft breeze moving through the trees. I didn’t hear Johanna approaching and nearly screamed when I saw her pale, nearly white face floating in mid-air in front of me, her eyes black in the darkness of the night and her lips pressed so tightly together that she looked like she didn’t have a mouth.
“I waited outside for you”, she said and then smiled. Suddenly the face that only seconds ago had terrified me was the warm and welcoming face I had seen nearly every day for three years and had come to respect if not love in my own right.
“Oh my God, you scared me.”
“Sorry, the lights on the porch are broken and I forgot to bring a flashlight.”
She placed her hand on my back and gently pushed me towards the house. When she opened the door, I saw that there was a light but it was too far in the back to be seen from the front yard. As we walked through the dark corridor towards the lit room which seemed to be the kitchen, we passed an open door and a cold draft tugged at my coat.
“I meant to have someone look at the vents downstairs”, Johanna said as we walked on. “But I forgot. I get so riled up with my work that I always forget things.” She laughed a little.
We arrived in the kitchen which was – in contrast to the rest of the house – homely and warm with wooden cupboards and a big welcoming table in the middle of the room that was amply lit and was full with fruits, vegetables, cheeses and several bottles of wine.
“I thought you might be hungry”, Johanna said as she looked at the big buffet. “I guess, I overdid it a little.” We both laughed and sat down.
For a while, we talked about nothing and everything, one glass of wine after the other. We ate and laughed and reminisced about the days at University. I don’t know how much time passed but I figured that if she didn’t want to say why she had invited me, I had to inquire.
“So, what is this big project?”
Her open and smiling face suddenly fell together and her eyes grew wide.
“I couldn’t tell you, you’d have to see it.”
“But why me? Why not someone who understands your art?”
Johanna looked at me with sad eyes and for reasons unknown it scared me.
“I needed someone who has without any doubt a scientific, logic mind.”
I looked at her quizzically. “I don’t understand.”
“Let me show you.” She turned around and rummaged through a drawer until she apparently found what she was looking for. It was two flashlights and she handed one to me.
“The lights are broken on the stairwell.”
“This house really needs a handyman”, I joked but Johanna didn’t react.
We walked towards the open door that led to the basement. The temperature fell immediately and it got so cold, that I wrapped my coat around me. The light of the flashlights danced down the steps but with every step down, the orbs of light seemed to shrink and the surrounding darkness seemed to enclose them as if it was trying to suffocate them. I shook my head, surprised how my usually sober mind had conjured up these ridiculous images.
Fortunately, the lights in the basement itself worked and I sighed audibly, when the pale and stark fluorescence flooded the room. Still, for a second I hoped it weren’t there for what it showed. All over the room, Johanna had positioned large canvases, some as tall as the ceiling. There were no expressionist horrors, no abstract figures or crude faces – they all were black.
Johanna positioned herself next to the tallest of the canvases and motioned me to come closer. I hesitantly took a step forwards. This surely was a sign of a nervous breakdown, my friend had reached a creative blockade and needed a voice of reason to tear the walls down.
“They are beautiful, aren’t they?”, she whispered as I moved closer. But as much as I strained my eyes to see, there was only a blackness spread all over the canvas and nothing else. No shading to hint at modernism, no integrated objects. Maybe it was one of the exhibitions that commented on art itself by presenting the audience with nothing but given Johanna’s wild imagination, I doubted that she ever would put something so empty of creativity on a canvas.
“They are black.”
Her smile frowned.
“You don’t see it, do you?”
I shook my head. “See what? There is nothing. All these paintings are black.”
She looked around as if to check whether I was right. But when she looked back at me, her smile was back. It was not the warm and friendly smile that she usually wore on her face but a condescending, arrogant smile that made her eyes look cold.
“That is good”, she said in a whispering tone, talking more to herself than to me. “That is very good.”
“What is good?”
For a moment I thought that she hadn’t heard me because she was staring at her flashlight but then her head jerked back up and that sinister smile had turned into a grin.
“You know, all the others they couldn’t handle them because they saw too much, their worldview was too open to juggle with the truth in these creations.”
“What do you mean with ‘the others’?”, I asked, growing more uneasy with each second in this goddarn basement. By now, it was so cold that I shuddered a little.
She looked at me as if she had said too much but then dismissed my question with a handwave. “Nevermind them, they were unimportant, besides, there’s nothing you could do for them. No, I knew that I needed someone who was so rooted in the apparent reality of the world that she would not immediately grasp what I had created.”
She moved towards the stairs and a horrible thought entered my mind, lingering there like a spider at the outer corner of her web: What if she was crazy? What if she had planned to take revenge for my lack of understanding and patience with her work and views? What if she wanted to keep me here in her basement? I never would have thought any of these horrid things about her before but her face – I didn’t recognize her anymore.
“What do you mean? You don’t make any sense. Please, Johanna, let’s go upstairs and talk this over, I think you need – ”
“Johanna, what are you doing?”
She had turned off the lights and I felt the fear creeping up but I couldn’t panic now, I needed a clear mind. I fumbled with my flashlight and nearly dropped it but finally managed to turn it on. The light fell directly on Johanna’s face.
“You don’t need the light, Clara. In fact, the light is the last thing you need right now.”
“Oh, I do think that I need the light. I think I need to go now.”
“Please. It’s not what you think.” Her voice sounded wounded, not menacing. But could I believe her?
“What do I think?”
“You think I want to hurt you, don’t you? But all I want to do is show you what I created. I promise, I won’t lay a hand on you if you only look at them one more time. After that, we can go upstairs and drink another glass of wine or you can call a cab and go home, whatever you like. But please, I need you to see it.”
“See what? There is nothing there!”
“Turn off the light and you’ll see what I mean.”
I should have ignored her, I should have pushed her out of my way, walked back upstairs and called a cab. But something in her voice – a vulnerable sadness that moved me, reminded me of our time together – urged me to trust her. I turned the flashlight off but kept it close to my chest.
I was surrounded by utter darkness and Johanna had to move me in the right direction. I don’t know why she knew where everything was, maybe she had spent so much time downstairs that she knew all the positions of each canvas, chair and wall, like a blind person accustomed to the furniture in their home. Slowly, we stumbled forwards and then she held me back to stand still.
At first, I saw nothing, of course I didn’t. It was so dark that I actually thought I was blind. I heard Johanna breathing close to my left ear and I concentrated on that, so my mind wouldn’t start to conjure up crazy ideas again. What happened next, can only be explained by the depths of the imagination filling the void of the darkness with imagery out of my subconscious because suddenly, the dark came closer.
First, I saw a sphere in front of me that seemed to rotate slowly. But then it changed form into something that resembled an animal and then it grew limbs and hands like a small human that was writhing on the canvas in front of me, like a newborn baby or – as I remembered with a sudden terror – like one of the many lost souls in Dante’s paintings of the seven levels of hell. And as I formed that connection, more bodies seemed to appear out of the darkness, countless spheres that turned into shadowy, writhing creatures. Without giving it a thought, I leaned closer and saw that most of them had their mouths wide open as if they were screaming. And even though all was black, all was dark, I could still see their black tongues slithering between their black lips and tiny black teeth glistening in the absence of light. And as I looked on in terror, I thought I heard a faint, horrifying choir of screams echoing in the distance.
“Do you see it?”
I dared not to answer but nodded in the dark and I felt her smiling behind me.
“This is one of my earliest but it was enough to drive some of my friends into madness.” Her voice was emotionless when she said it and I could feel my hear beating faster in fear.
“At first, I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no inspiration and didn’t know what to pick for my next big project. You know, the more successful you get as an artist, the more pressure you have and the scarier it is to start something new. I had nightmares of failing my fans and the critics, all the things that usually helped me find inspiration suddenly seemed stupid and tame as if I had grown up and couldn’t reach this magical place anymore. And then I stopped sleeping altogether.”
I closed my eyes as she spoke because I couldn’t dare to see the bodies because the longer I looked, the more it felt as if they were looking back at me with eyes as small as needles, sticking their relentless gazes into the very fabric of my sanity.
“Insomnia is quite common, you know. At first it feels as if you are drunk all day and you are just tired all the time. But then, after a while, you start to see things shifting. Of course, psychologists say that it is your mind playing tricks on you, like seeing double when you’re drunk or whatever. But it never felt like a hallucination. I could see reality tearing in its shadows, I could see through them and there was a whole world in the darkness. It’s like every shadow is a crack to this world but the light keeps all the things and creatures from our world. But I found a way to let them in.
“Why…why would you do that?” I hardly recognized my voice when it echoed through the room.
“As a scientist, you sure must know why I did it! Wouldn’t you want to know whether there is something else out there? Wouldn’t it drive you crazy to just ignore something that you found and that potentially no one else before you discovered? I had to draw the things I saw, I simply had to.”
I felt her hands on my shoulders pushing me to the right.
“Here, let me show you my most beautiful creation.”
“I don’t want to see.”
“Please, we can go upstairs after this, ok?”
Reluctantly, I moved forward, hoping that the next canvas would be filled with things less terrifying. We stopped and I knew without seeing that we stood in front of the biggest canvas in the room. Without knowing why, I raised my head as if to address someone much taller than me and soon enough, a sphere as big as a horse appeared in front of me, rotating and moving like a drop of oil in a glass of water. Johanna’s grip on my shoulders tightened and I felt her fingernails digging through my coat and into my flesh. I welcomed the pain and hoped it would keep me from seeing those crude things that must have been created by my mind, still influenced by the wine and the fear of the dark. The sphere started to change and I watched with silent horror as it grew into the form of a giant man, bowing down to fit under the low ceiling of the cellar. His arms were unusually long for a man but then again, this was no human. His chest heaved as his extremities grew into full form and I could see thick pulsing veins in his neck. His head was the last thing to form and at first the creature’s face wasn’t visible. For a moment I thought that it simply wasn’t there but then I realized that the giant didn’t have a nose and its lips were so thin that it looked as if there was no mouth. But the eyes were there and if I thought that all I had seen this night had been darkness, I had been wrong. Its eyes were very small for the big head but they were so black that I felt them pulling me towards him like two mirrors pulling each other closer, creating a vacuum. I took a step, Johanna’s hand around my shoulder slowly softening its grip and letting me go, letting me walk towards the cold embrace of this thing when I saw it open its mouth. It had no tongue but long rows of teeth that reminded me of the tiny needle-teeth of the writhing creatures. And as I stumbled yet another step closer I saw with a terrifying clarity that these were no teeth but the lifeless heads of those creatures, rows after rows of the dead lined up like sharks teeth. And it was in that moment that I finally could tear away my gaze, could turn around and run, guessing, hoping, praying to God that I would not stumble and find the stairs that led to the light of the kitchen. I heard Johanna scream in anger and her hand tried to grab me, tearing at my coat but I was too fast, too scared to let her hold me back. And when I finally reached the stairs, my hands in front to grab the bannister, one still holding the flashlight like a talisman, I heard something else in the distant, something growling as if underwater. I felt the flashlight in one hand and the railing in the other and ran, two, three steps at once and it felt like an eternity until I reached the door and stumbled through it. I turned around and slammed it shut, Johanna’s scream growing weaker and when I turned on the flashlight, her voice suddenly stopped.
I didn’t call for her, nor did I linger long at the house. I ran outside and along the street until I reached a street lamp. Only there, under the warm light, I dared to stop and call a cab. No police, no fireman would have believed my story and all I wanted to do was to leave this place. I told them that I was on my way and that they should head for Collington Drive but should look out for a person at the side of the road and then I proceeded to leave the terror and the darkness behind me.
I am writing this only a few days later. Although my mind immediately turned what happened into a drunken episode by morning, I packed my bags and took the first flight to some place else, somewhere sunny and warm. And even though it is easier to believe that all of this was a bad dream or a hallucination, I can not forget what I saw. Whether that – thing – I saw was a danger to Johanna or a servant, I do not know, nor do I know whether she wanted to kill me or simply show me what she had seen.
It’s been three days now and I haven’t slept. At first it was the shock and everything went by in a haze. The beach and the sea, everything felt surreal and its colours were hurting my eyes so much, that I stayed in my hotel room most of the time. The sun burns and even though the curtains are thick and dark, I still feel its brightness clawing at my eyes. Whenever I am outside of my room, I see nothing but blurs of colours and objects which probably stems from the insomnia. The only thing that seems clear, is the shadow in the corner of my bedroom. This is a nice hotel, very clean and nicely decorated. But it shows its age because there’s a crack in the wall in that corner and I think I heard mice whispering behind the walls…