NIGHTMARE ROYALE #8: Getting Into “THE SPIRIT OF THINGS” (A Hideous Happy Halloween Present for Yoooo!!!)Columns,John Skipp's Nightmare Royale (On Making Horror Better),News John Skipp
This month, instead of my traditional foaming-at-the-mouth, I thought it might be nice to rekindle the true spirit of the season with this nasty little nugget from my early splatterpunk days.
Hilariously, this short story (one of my first published pieces) turns thirty years old this month. Which means it’s probably older than half you crazy bastards. But don’t worry. It’s still pretty fucked-up.
So HAPPY HALLOWEEN, EVERYBODY! Have a wonderful week!
And hope you survive…
THE SPIRIT OF THINGS
They were screaming downstairs, in Bob Wallach’s apartment. He couldn’t tell how many people Bob had down there with him. He couldn’t even tell how much of it was human screaming. He really didn’t want to know.
“Damn it all, I tried to warn him,” Wertzel hissed. It didn’t help. The floorboards thudded and death-twitched beneath his feet. Books and knickknacks threatened to tumble from their perches. Something snapped and shattered against a wall below: furniture, bone, he couldn’t be sure. A window exploded into tinkling shards. The stereo died in mid-song, groaning.
The screaming got louder, crazier. Wertzel swallowed painfully and white-knuckled the handgrip of his .45. Something, decidedly not human, shrieked. The screaming got worse, if that was possible.
A single lightbulb burned in the center of the white ceiling. Jake Wertzel sat directly below it on a rickety wooden chair, his back pointed toward the only featureless wall in his third-story walkup studio apartment. To his right were the windows that faced Thirty-Seventh Street. To the left were the doorways to his closet, his bathroom, the hallway and stairs beyond. Before him lay the kitchenette, the unusable fireplace, his bed.
Every entrance to the room… the windows, the doors, the mouth of the fireplace… were completely boarded up and blockaded. He hoped that it would be enough.
The walls and the floorboards were ceasing to shudder. The screaming, which had continued to mount, now began to dissemble into its component parts. He could distinguish maybe a half-dozen voices, all veering off toward their separate grand finales: this one, a woman’s, spiraling up toward the ultrasonic as if someone or something were slowly twisting a dial; this one, a man’s, trumpeting dissonant jazz that closed with a jagged, moist burbling sound; this one, which could have been either sex, rattling off a string of syllables that ended, very clearly, with the word no. Wertzel knew for a fact that that was the word, because it hovered in the air for a good ten seconds before something made a sound like shredding paper and silenced it.
There was more. Much more. Wallach must’ve been having some kind of a party, Wertzel thought bitterly. Maybe he thought there was safety in numbers. A pair of voices warbled and whooped in screeching, agonized harmony. Stupid goddam kid. I tried to warn him…
The screaming stopped, abruptly.
And the feeding sounds began.
Wertzel cupped his hands over his ears, clammy shields against the horror. A blood-red ocean roared and surged inside his head. It was better, but it was not enough. He wanted to hum something, set up a monochromatic drone that would amplify itself against the confines of his skull, drown out the cracking and smacking and slurping from below. He didn’t dare. The tiniest sound might be enough to attract them. Even his breathing was carefully modulated for silence.
It went on for five minutes that seemed very much like forever.
Jake Wertzel was a squat, stocky man in his late thirties: barrel chest, paunch beneath it, massive arms to either side. Twenty years on the loading docks will do that to you. His features were pinched and unlovely; his hairline had receded all the way to the back of his head, crowning him with a bald plateau that shimmered in the light from the bare bulb in the ceiling. He looked like a man who had known much hardship, very little happiness. He looked exactly like what he was.
He wished to God that he were not so horribly alone.
He remembered the dogs. Fleetingly, absurdly, he wished that they were still alive, wagging their tails or lapping at his cheeks or humping his knees with witless abandon. He had picked them up at the Humane Society three weeks before, anticipating the holiday rush: a pair of big, stupid, ungainly mutts that he named Haystacks and Calhoun. Wertzel had done his human best to remain detached from then, knowing what fate had in store. But three weeks is a long time: more than enough time to grow fond of them, their brainless devotion. More than enough time to make him miss them now.
At 10:45, the absolute latest that he could wait, Wertzel gave the last supper to Haystacks and Calhoun. The Purina Dog Chow was laced with enough sedatives to knock out an army: he wanted to make sure that they felt no pain. Fifteen minutes later, they were down for the count.
Wertzel had dragged them out into the hallway, gutted them, drawn a huge cross on the door with their blood, and left them on the matt: paws up, tongues lolling.
Then he had gone back into the apartment, locked and bolted and nailed the door shut, boarded it up with heavy planks he had taken from skids at the loading dock, and moved to the chair in the middle of the room.
To wait. And hope.
It was now twenty after twelve. The witching hour had struck.
And they had come.
“Oh, God,” he moaned, and was startled by how loudly the words boomed in his ears. His hands jerked away from the sides of his head, and he realized that the downstairs had gone almost completely silent. There was a faint, airy sound that might have been the hissing of the pipes. Somehow, he didn’t believe it.
Why me? he thought. Why here? Why now? Last year, the worst of it had gone down in Chelsea and the Village. The year before that… the first year… had laid waste to much of the Upper East Side. If there was a pattern there, Wertzel couldn’t see it; but he’d hoped that the horror would focus itself uptown again, give him enough time to save up enough money to maybe get the hell out of New York before the fall.
As if there were anywhere safe to go.
Most of all, he wished that things would revert to the way they used to be. He wished for the sound of children’s voices, giddy with laughter and hoarse with demands. He wished for cheesy plastic masks, eyeholes sliced in ratty sheets, prosthetic warts and theatrical blood.
He longed for the days when it was easy to pretend that the whole thing was just a joke.
Gone now, his mind whispered silently. All gone. All gone…
They were coming up the stairs.
Wertzel felt his bowels tighten like a hangman’s knot. Ice water drained down his spine and gathered in the pit of his stomach. His scrotum constricted like a slug under a magnifying glass, and hot moisture like acid seeped into his eyes from the unlimited slope of his forehead.
They were coming up the stairs. He didn’t know what they were, what they looked like, how they moved. He didn’t want to know. They made sounds that his ears rejected as unreal, though his heart and soul knew better. They skittered and slithered and fluttered and muttered and howled like brain-damaged hyenas from Hell. One of them made a noise like a spoons-player in a jug band; it moved along the stairway wall with incredible speed, blasted down the hall toward him, clattered across the length of the door in a split-second, raced halfway up to the fourth floor and came all the way back before the others reached the third floor landing.
One of them made the walls shake as it approached.
I will not move, he urged himself with a silent, sickly whining voice. I will not scream. I will not lose control. He prayed that the sacrifice would work. Rumor had it that blood offerings had been known to, on occasion.
Wertzel found himself wishing, suddenly, that he’d sacrificed a child instead; supposedly, they worked the best. But killing the dogs had been bad enough.
At the time.
They were coming down the hall. They were coming to his door. The books and knickknacks that had threatened to tumble now made good on their promise, slamming and shattering against the floor, filling the room with gunshot echoes that ricocheted off the walls. The heavy chest of drawers rocked back and forth on its heels like a Bozo punching bag. The kitchen cupboard flew open; plates and saucers and glasses and cups exploded into the sink like a string of firecrackers.
Wertzel screamed and pissed himself. He couldn’t help it. The crotch of his Lee Jeans ballooned with moisture, and wet sticky tendrils crept down his thighs, while his mouth flew open and all the terror in his heart flew up, up, and out in a torrential spasm.
“NO PLEASE GOD NO PLEASE NO OH GOD PLEASE DON’T KILL ME! I…I…”
In the bathroom, behind the boarded-up door, the toilet flushed.
A light came on in the sealed closet. There was the sound of rending fabric.
Something scratched against the window, screeched, and flapped its leathery wings.
“I GAVE YOU A SACRIFICE!” he bellowed. “I GAVE YOU A SACRIFICE, PLEASE DON’T KILL ME, OH GOD PLEASE I’LL DO ANYTHING YOU WANT…”
Jake Wertzel fell back in his seat, breath catching in his throat. The room had stopped shaking. Nothing moved. Nothing fell.
Silence from the bathroom.
Silence from the closet.
Silence from the windows.
Silence in the hall.
Wertzel held his breath for a good thirty seconds, not daring to believe.
Slowly, then, he let out one long shuddering exhalation. The muscles in his face twitched; the corners of his mouth arced tentatively upward in a smile. He let the useless .45 dangle by one finger like an ornament on an artificial tree.
Then he started to cry.
And God, did it ever feel good to cry, to let out all the pent-up emotion, to bask and wallow in the fact that he was alive!, he was alive!, and no sound remained to haunt him but the manic intermingling of his own tears and laughter, punctuated by the steady…
(Drip. Drip. Drip.)
Of what? He laughed and cried some more. It could have been swollen teardrops, landing at his feet. It could have been the piss, still dribbling down his legs. Lord knew he had dropped enough fluids in the last few minutes to account for any amount of…
(Drip. Drip. Drip.)
It was coming from above him.
He opened his eyes.
The room was turning red.
(Drip. Drip. Drip.)
He looked up.
There was a quarter-inch of blood at the bottom of the lightbulb in the center of the ceiling, directly above his head. He looked up just in time to watch a tiny blue spark catch off the filament, just before the bulb blew up, showering him with blood and broken glass.
And total darkness.
Wertzel shrieked and hit the floor on his hands and knees. The glass bit through his clothes, his skin, sinking into the meat and lodging there like bee-stingers. He yowled and rolled over. His back erupted with pain.
The toilet flushed.
Light winked on under the closet door.
Something dragged its talons along the window-glass outside.
And the spitfire staccato of the wall-climbing thing burst out from the hole in the wall behind the oven, the hole he had forgotten to patch, the hole that now allowed it entrance. Like a methedrine freak with a pair of spoons, it clattered and streaked toward him so fast that he barely had time to aim the .45 in the direction of the sound and fire.
In the muzzle-flash, he could see the scuttling crabthing turn inside-out and spray all over the kitchenette. Then it was dark again, totally dark. Spots danced in front of his eyes. His ears were filling with the hiss of melting metal as the crabthing’s guts ate holes in the oven, the Frigidaire…
Not total darkness.
In the fireplace, something was moving. He could see it through the cracks between the boards, red and yellow and orange like flame. But brighter. More solid.
A pair of tiny flaming hands pried their way between the boards. The wood crackled and blackened at their touch. A tiny head poked through the opening.
It stared at him.
And suddenly Wertzel knew why there would be no more plastic masks, no tattered sheets with holes for the eyes, no warts and scars and blood from the lab. Suddenly, he knew why they had come.
They had been watching, and waiting, for a long long time. They had watched the Church march arrogantly across the face of the earth, twisting the old pagan holidays to suit it, stripping and homogenizing away all meaning, then positing nonsense in its place.
And though centuries passed like seconds to them, it still dragged on too long. Where the Great Dark Ones had once strode the earth, there now stood Kolchak, The Night Stalker and Caspar, The Friendly Ghost. They had seen the shitty movies. They had read the shitty books. They had seen themselves turned into limp-wristed Bela Lugosis and carrot-headed James Arnesses, heard too many bad actors get the spells all wrong and conjure up demons that couldn’t scare the fleas off a pink-nosed bunny.
Worst of all, they had seen All Hallow’s Eve transformed into a ritual for posturing, preening babies; had seen their glorious faces mocked and strung up in too many dime store windows. For far too long.
But that was over.
Wertzel understood it all, staring into those coal-black, ageless eyes.
He understood perfectly.
He started to scream.
Then the windows imploded, and the front door blew apart like a matchstick house in a hurricane’s hands, and the Old Ones slithered and stalked and soared into Jake Wertzel’s third-floor walkup apartment in beautiful Godless midtown Manhattan.
After a while, the screaming stopped.
And the feeding sounds began.
* * *
Halloween. It ain’t just kid stuff.