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Such Stuff by Steve Finbow | Word Riot
Short Stories

February 15, 2016      

Such Stuff by Steve Finbow

I will die on January 22nd 2061, exactly one hundred years after I was born. I will die in agony. I will die happy. I should not be here. It’s the last thing I wanted. I suppose questions will arise as to how I got myself into this situation in the first place. Predicaments abounded, events conspired against me, safer denouements were squandered in favour of risk and uncertainty. A cavalier spirit rather than a conservative one has always been my downfall, my rush of blood. Even as a child, when told by one of my parents to stop what I was doing, to cease the hair pulling, the dog spanking, the cat teasing, I would do it one more time, just once, eyes fixed firmly on whomever parent had admonished me, one more yank of my sister’s long blonde hair, one more rap of Tixie’s quivering haunch, one more flick of the lighter in the direction of Candy’s whiskers. I could have said no this time, turned my back, walked out of the room. But life isn’t for retreating, for bunts and feints; no, life is for onslaught and home-runs, for the twangling of swords and the brilliant cacophony of armour clash and trumpet blare. Besides, I had no say in the matter, never have done. Apparently.

They first visited when I was 12 years old. Of course, I didn’t know it was “they” at the time, I didn’t know that they would stay with me for the rest of my life. I thought, as did my parents, that it was a peculiar-to-childhood event, something to do with my medication or some kind of sleep disorder. Doctors mentioned the word “hypnagogic” and like all terms that identify an unknown thing, this, in itself, was taken as a cure, an adjectival remedy, a salve to the rash and rush of hallucinations my parents refused to believe I had experienced.

I was on my bed simultaneously listening to music — a fairly recent pastime — flicking through a novel by William Hope Hodgson and arranging Airfix soldiers among the hills and valleys of the pale-blue blanket, trying to mirror the actions in the book, placing the Recluse (a Roman centurion), Tonnison and Berreggnog (8th Army) and Pepper (a Border collie from my farmyard collection) in chasms and pits ready to ambush any passing swine-things (pigs, again, from my farmyard collection). I liked playing soldiers and my new interest (yet another) in fantasy and horror fiction helped boost my imagination. But, like most other things I was interested in, it was mutable, epochs elided, eras clashed, genres intertwined. While David Bowie sang a song that’s lyrics I had no chance of understanding, “The sniper in the brain, regurgitating drain, incestuous and vain,” and placing the ever-reliable Pepper on top of a suicide-mission crest ready to pounce on the large swine-thing, I heard a knock on the door. I watched as the door opened a few inches and Candy slipped into the room, her body an undulating and smoky S. She jumped on to the bed, ignored me, curled up by the pillow, purred briefly and peremptorily and fell asleep. The song crackled to a finish and I got up to replay it.

In the peripheral vision of my right eye, I saw a shadow move across the floor by the door. Thinking it was my own, I paid no attention to it until I saw it move again while I remained still. I turned and looked more closely. In the bottom left-hand corner of the door, another door had appeared — a proper door about eighteen inches by nine inches, with wood grain and a handle, with four panels and mouldings, with a brass handle. I rubbed my eyes. Looked. It was still there. I felt a cold shiver crawl up my body from my feet, turning my legs, then torso, then neck to ice, creeping over my skull and scalp. I shook myself and walked towards the door, as I did so, the handle turned and the door slowly opened. I grabbed the handle of the bedroom door and pulled it towards me. As I did, a figure emerged from the smaller door, black and indistinct and grew to about my height. I ran past it and along the hallway, past my brother’s bedroom, the toilet, the bathroom. As I reached the top of the stairs, I looked back, the figure, inkier than the surrounding darkness, followed me. I took the stairs two at a time and at the bottom clattered into the living room door and fell to my knees. Seconds later, my mother opened it and said,
      “What on earth are you doing?”
      “I saw a thing,” I said.
      “What thing?”
      “A black thing. It came out of the little door.”
      “Are you making up stories again?”
      “No,” I said. “Honest.”
      “Come on, I’ll make you some Horlicks.”
As far as I know, that was the first time they had visited.

Whether it was the paucity of my imagination back then — not that my mother and father or the various doctors I was taken to to be examined by would have agreed, describing it variously as vivid, over-excitable and surreal, while blaming it on puberty, asthma medication and, of all things, cheese — but the dark thing I saw emerge that day was shapeless, a risen ectoplasmic shadow, a nothing. But, as time went on, and they visited more frequently, the indistinct became form, the nebulous became apparent, I began to see them as they were and they were human, whatever that is. Whatever that was.

There’s that place at the top back of the skull where I imagine the outpourings and the infiltrations occur, where the hair is thinning, the skin porous, the bones brittle. Is that where they come in, mooch, then leave, where the traces of them linger and fester? A fontanelle, I think it’s called. Maybe that’s how they got in. Maybe they keep it open for the purposes of egress and exit. I’ve never felt comfortable touching that part of my skull, thinking that the brain is too close to the surface there, and my fingers might delve in amongst the pink maze, the gelatinous mass.

The doctors asked if I heard voices. I didn’t. There was a low continuous buzz but that could have been the background noise of the city I lived in or the drone of the airport close to our house. If I concentrated, yes, I could pick out random words within the fuzzy whistle, but no distinct voice. Nothing was telling me to kill myself. Nobody was encouraging me to murder others. In a sense, all quite normal. My parents shrugged it off. The doctors became bored. I just waited. They would come.

But they didn’t. They disappeared. Had the hole at the top back of my skull closed forever? Had my imagination finally been quashed by things such as mathematics, physics, football training, a steady girlfriend? And then I noticed that the fuzzy whistle in my head had also stopped — although the city and airport had increased in size, population and traffic — and now there was an ice-blue crystal silence with only the occasional creak and fart. Glacial.

By the time I’d reached 18, by the time I’d started university, thoughts of “they” had disappeared. Maybe it was the asthma drugs, the cheese, variances in the light that caused that door and shadow to appear. The doctors were right, my parents too. I no longer told the story. I no longer cared that it had happened and slowly began to believe that I’d hallucinated the hallucination. A story I’d told so many times that it became real. But no more. Even when confronted by the Gothic tales of Radcliffe, Vathek and Lewis or the Victorian psychological horrors of Poe, Stevenson and Machen, I saw beyond the smoke, saw that it was all about repression and suppression, penises and vaginas, maybe it had something to do with puberty or some (extremely) late Lacanian mirror-stage, which, to be honest, I’ve understood less and less the older I get. But, as a pretentious undergraduate, I used it in conversation as regularly as “like”, “innit” and “you know”.

It was also about this time that I started writing stories. Some fantastical, some based on experience, some ripped off from other writers — Borges and Kafka were my subject mines, deep holes full of glittering ideas, I’d excavate them, stashing inspirational nuggets in my notebooks. One day, in my room, after having masturbated over a middle-aged television presenter, I jotted down ideas about a story. A story about ghosts and time travel, about parallel worlds and overlapping centuries, about how buildings retain a sense of their own past and the inhabitants who had lived there over the years. How could I redact the history of the house in which I lived — late 19th century — and the libidinous student chaos of its present occupants? My mind conjured succubi and incubi, Draculas and Liliths, Juliettes and Don Juans. I’d been reading too much Lovecraft and — like the old gentlemen from Providence himself — obviously not getting enough sex. But I started; I took Melville’s character — Wellingborough Redburn — and expanded on his adventures in Liverpool and its docks in 1839. He meets a sickly woman who may be a ghost and helps her back to her rooms — the house where I now lived — and there encounters a ghost from the future who, in another part of the story, experiences Redburn as a shimmering image of pure energy and dark light.

Happy with what I’d written, I decided to take a nap. On my back on the bed, I closed my eyes. As the fireworks dispersed and dissolved beneath my eyelids, I had a sensation of someone watching me. I started and opened my eyes quickly, black worms swam in the newly emerged light, my head was cold, my hair sweaty, the ceiling above me appeared as a page, the far left corner folded back as if to mark a place. I must be dreaming, I thought. I am asleep. This is the beginning of a nightmare. I’ve been working too hard. Reading too many horror stories. Fuck Straub, fuck Barker, fuck — well, fuck King.

I tried to get up, to raise myself from the yeasty sheets. I couldn’t move. The page was being pulled back, there was a giant hand peeling the paper like a scab, and underneath were illustrations, dates, lists of people, lists of places. I tried to close my eyes but they were fixed open, staring, unable to stop seeing what they were seeing — and a figure stepped across the ceiling, shadowy yet distinct, human and not, and — like a weather presenter — pointed in turn to a map of Liverpool, a date, two people (me and my mother) — my graduation in two years’ time. And then another — a map of New York, a date five years’ hence, three people (a man and two women) I did not know. All the time, the figure smiled, well, at least I think the fucker was smiling, its nebulous head shifting with grey swirls and within it an upturned crescent of lighter grey appeared where its mouth should be. My eyes stung, my mouth was dry, my penis rock hard and ready to pop. I have no idea how much time elapsed, the figure showed me a further three tableaus I suppose the things could be called — London, Battersea, Camden and Walthamstow. Various women, one appeared more often than the others, no children, the autumn-coloured glass of bottles and the golds and silvers of cans illuminating changing backgrounds. The final presentation took me up to the age of 33 and 120 days — May 25th. The room went black, I must have slept, I awoke some hours later in the dark and cold but I felt rested and alert. I wrote what I could remember in my notebook, the dates the images, descriptions of the people.

Years later, on May 25th, I was in a hammock on a beach in Ko Samui, Thailand, reading a galley proof of Michael Marshall Smith’s Only Forward, marking passages with a fluorescent yellow highlighter, a cold bottle of Chang within easy reach, my wife (the one who had appeared more often than the other women in the visions) sunbathing nearby, and a cloud crossed the sun. I looked up, expecting it to be a rain cloud that brought respite and moisture to the stifling heat, but the thing had formed in the shape of a page and took up the whole of the sky, except for a lighter triangle in the northeast corner that was slowly being peeled back. And then the novel dropped from my hands, the beer bottle shattered, my wife remained fixed to the sand, she was no longer breathing, no longer sweating, the beads like moonstones notched into her golden skin. And in my peripheral vision, I could see shards of amber catching the sun, glistening with beer, forming a bouquet of glass yet to complete its fall to the sand. And I could see the book, its pages caught in a frozen riffle and I fixed on the words that I didn’t remember illuminating and they read, “But later he remembered, and realised it had not been a dream.”

41uvC0yYToL._UX250_About the author:

Steve Finbow’s fiction includes Balzac of the Badlands (Future Fiction London, 2009), Tougher Than Anything in the Animal Kingdom (Grievous Jones Press, 2011), Nothing Matters (Snubnose Press, 2012). His biography of Allen Ginsberg in Reaktion’s Critical Lives series was published in 2011. His latest works are Grave Desire: A Cultural History of Necrophilia (Zero Books, 2014) and Down Among the Dead (Number Thirteen Press, 2014). He is now writing a non-fiction analysis of physical illness and creativity for Repeater Books and is writer-in-residence at The Function Room.

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