Title: Books of Blood, Volume 6.
Author: Clive Barker.
Genre: Fiction, short stories, horror.
Publication Date: 1985.
Summary: This book collects the sixth (of 6) volumes of Books of Blood and 5 short stories. In The Life of Death, after people start dying around her, Elaine comes to believe she has contracted a mysterious virus from a recent excavated plague tomb she visited, when she meets a man she comes firmly to believe is actually Death. In How Spoilers Bleed, a group of ruthless mercenaries in South America come to forcefully remove an Amazon tribe from their lands, until a shaman puts a curse on the group that soon begins to work its horrible magic. In Twilight at the Towers, after meeting with a defecting Russian spy, Ballard, a British spy stationed in Berlin is pulled into a deep conspiracy that turns out to involve him in dark and bloody ways he could never have imagined. In The Last Illusion, a private detective in New York is contacted for a strange request - to oversee a cremating of a recently deceased magician's body, but before long unexpectedly finds himself in a Faustian battle against horrifying forces. The Book of Blood (a postscript): On Jerusalem Street serves as a direct sequel to the very first story in the series, and the second book-end to it, describing the vessel of all the books of blood being hunted down by an assassin for his skin, but the assassin discovers perhaps too late that the dead have highways - it is the living that are lost.
My rating: 8/10.
♥ "..It was built in the late seventeenth century, I believe. Are you fond of churches?"
"Not particularly. It was just that I saw the smoke, and..."
"Everybody likes a demolition-scene," he said.
"Yes," she replied, "I suppose that's true."
"It's like watching a funeral. Better them than us, eh?"
She murmured something in agreement, her mind flitting elsewhere. Back to the hospital. To her pain and her present healing. To her life saved only by losing the capacity for further life. Better them than us.
♥ She wandered down to where the altar had been, reading the names as she went. Who knew or cared about these people's resting places now? Dead two hundred years and more, and gone away not into loving posterity but into oblivion. And suddenly the unarticulated hopes for an after-life she had nursed through her thirty-four years slipped away; she was no longer weighed down by some vague ambition for heaven. One day, perhaps this day, she would die, just as these people had died, and it wouldn't matter a jot. There was nothing to come, nothing to aspire to, nothing to dream of. She stood in a patch of smoke-thickened sun, thinking of this, and was almost happy.
♥ One item, however, did pique her curiosity: an interview with the solo yachtsman, Michael Maybury, who had been picked up that day after two weeks adrift in the Pacific. The interview was being beamed from Australia, and the contact was bad; the image of Maybury's bearded and sun-scorched face was constantly threatened with being snowed out. The picture little mattered: the account he gave of his failed voyage was riveting in sound alone, and in particular an event that seemed to distress him afresh even as he told it. He had been becalmed, and as his vessel lacked a motor had been obliged to wait for wind. It had not come. A week had gone by with his hardly moving a kilometre from the same spot of listless ocean; no bird por passing ship broke the monotony. With every hour that passed, his claustrophobia grew, and on the eighth day it reached panic proportions, so he let himself over the side of the yacht and swam away from the vessel, a life-line tied about his middle, in order to escape the same few yards of deck. But once away from the yacht, and treading the still, warm water, he had no desire to go back. Why not untie the knot, he'd thought to himself, and float away.
"What made you change your mind?" the interviewer asked.
Here Maybury frowned. He had clearly reached the crux of his story, but didn't want to finish it. The interviewer repeated the question.
At last, hesitantly, the sailor responded. "I looked back at the yacht," he said, "and I saw somebody on the deck."
The interviewer, not certain that he'd heard correctly, said: "Somebody on the deck?"
"That's right," Maybury replied. "Somebody was there. I saw a figure quite clearly; moving around."
"Did you... did you recognise this stowaway?" the question came.
Maybury's face closed down, sending that his story was being treated with mild sarcasm.
"Who was it?" the interviewer pressed.
"I don't know," Maybury said. "Death, I suppose."
The questioner momentarily lost for words.
"But of course you returned to the boat, eventually."
"And there was no sign of anybody?"
Maybury glanced up at the interviewer, and a look of contempt crossed his face.
"I'd survived, didn't I?" he said.
The interviewer mumbled something about not understanding his point.
"I didn't drown," Maybury said. "I could have died then, if I'd wanted to. Slipped off the rope and drowned."
"But you didn't. And the next day –"
"The next day the wind picked up."
"It's an extraordinary story," the interviewer said, content that the stickiest part of the exchange was now safely by-passed. "You must be looked forward to seeing your family again for Christmas..."
Elaine didn't hear the final exchange of pleasantries. Her imagination was tied by a fine rope to the room she was sitting in; her fingers toyed with the knot. If Death could find a boat in the wastes of the Pacific, how much easier it must be to find her. To sit with her, perhaps, as she slept. To watch her as she went about her mourning.
.."Sad story, isn't it?" Sam commented. "The way it happened."
"Him saying that: about Death being on the boat with him –"
"– And then dying," Hermione said.
"Dying?" said Elaine. "When was this?"
"It was in all the papers."
"I haven't been concentrating that much," Elaine replied. "What happened?"
"He was killed," Sam said. "They were taking him to the airport to fly him home, and there was an accident. He was killed just like that." He snapped his middle finger and thumb. "Out like a light."
"So sad," said Hermione.
She glanced at Elaine, and a frown crept across her face. The look baffled Elaine until – with that same shock of recognition she'd felt in Chimes' office, discovering her tears – she realized that she was smiling.
So the sailor wads dead.
When the party broke up in the early hours of Saturday morning – when the embraces and the kisses were over and she was home again – she thought over the Maybury interview she's heard, summoning a face scorched by the sun and eyes peeled by the wastes he'd almost been lost to, thinking of his mixture of detachment and faint embarrassment as he'd told the tale of his stowaway. And, of course, those final words of his, when pressed to identity the stranger:
"Death, I suppose," he'd said.
He'd been right.
♥ "..In fact I scarcely remember it at all. I only remember how everybody cried."
He nodded sagely.
"So selfish," he said. "Don't you think? Spoiling a farewell with snot and sobs." Again, he looked at her to gauge the response, again he was satisfied that she would not take offence. "We cry for ourselves, don't we? Not for the dead. The dead are past caring."
She made a small, soft: "Yes," and then, more loudly: "My God, yes. That's right. Always for ourselves..."
"You see how much the dead can teach, just by lying there, twiddling their thumb-bones?"
♥ She had so much to do; so many wasted, grieving days to catch up on. An apt phrase flitted into her head. Redeem the time. She wrote the three words on her notebook as a reminder. Where did they come from? She couldn't recall. It didn't matter. Sometimes there was wisdom in forgetting.
♥ She compensated for the lack in her colleagues, however. She had a fierce hunger in her; her body almost seemed to ache for sustenance. It was a good feeling, after so many months of lassitude. When she looked around at the worn faces at the table she felt utterly apart from them: from their tittle-tattle and their trivial opinions, from the way their talk circled on the suddenness of Bernice's death as though they had not given the subject a moment's thought in years, and were amazed that their neglect had not rendered it extinct.
Elaine knew better. She had come close to death so often in the recent past: during the months leading up to her hysterectomy, when the tumours had suddenly doubled in size as though sensing that they were plotted against; on the operating table, when twice the surgeons thought they'd lost her; and most recently, in the crypt, face to face with those gawping carcasses. Death was everywhere. That they should be so startled by its entrance into their charmless circle struck her as almost comical. She ate lustily, and let them talk in whispers.
♥ Even after a meal which would have sickened her with its excess a few days before, she felt light-headed as she set out for All Saints; almost as though she were drunk. Not the maudlin drunkenness she had been prone to when with Mitch, but a euphoria which made her feel well-nigh invulnerable, as if she had at last located some bright and incorruptible part of herself, and no harm would ever befall her again.
♥ For some reason she wasn't thinking or Reuben or Sonja – who, it seemed, she would not see again – but of the sailor, Maybury, who'd seen Death and escaped it only to have it follow him like a loyal dog, waiting its moment to leap and lick his face. She sat beside the phone and stared at the numbers on the sheet, and then at the fingers that held the sheet and at the hands that held the fingers. Was the touch that hung so innocently at the end of her arms now lethal? Was that what the detectives had come to tell her?; that her friends were dead by her good offices? If so, how many others had she brushed against and breathed upon in the days since her pestilential education at the crypt? In the street, in the bus, in the supermarket: at work, at play. She thought of Bernice, lying on the toilet floor, and of Hermione, rubbing the spot where she had been kissed as if knowing some scourge had been passed along to her. And suddenly she knew, knew in her marrow, that her pursuers were right in their suspicions, and that all these dreamy days she had been nurturing a fatal child. Hence her hunger; hence the flow of fulfilment she felt.
She put down the note and sat in the semi-darkness, trying to work out precisely the plague's location. Was it her fingertips; in her belly; in her eyes? None, and yet all of these. Her first assumption had been wrong. It wasn't a child at all: she didn't carry it in some particular cell. It was everywhere. She and it were synonymous.
♥ They had come looking for her, hadn't they, to take her back into the custody of sterile rooms, to deprive her of her opinions and dignity, to make her fit only for their loveless investigations. The thought revolted her; she would rather die as the chestnut-haired woman in the crypt had died, sprawled in agonies, than submit to them again. She tore up the sheet of paper and let the litter drop.
It was tooate for solutions anyway. The removal men had opened the door and found Death waiting on the other side, eager for daylight. She was its agent, and it – in its wisdom – had granted her immunity; had given her strength and a dreamy rapture; had taken her fear away. She, in return, had spread its word, and there was no undoing those labours' not now. All the dozens, maybe hundreds, of people whom she'd contaminated in the last few days would have gone back to their families and friends, to their work places and their places of recreation, and spread the word yet further. They would have passed its fatal promise to their children as they tucked them into bed, and to their mates in the act of love. Priests had no doubt given it with Communion; shopkeepers with change of a five-pound note.
♥ "Death's been waiting for me all this time, am I right?"
Oh yes," he said, pleased by her understanding of the situation between them. He took as step towards her, and reached to touch her face.
"You are remarkable," he said.
"But to be so unmoved by it all. So cold."
"What's to be afraid of?" she said. He stroked her cheek. She almost expected his hood of skin to come unbuttoned then, and the marbles that played in his sockets to tumble out and smash. But he kept his disguise intact, for appearance's sake.
"I want you," he told. her.
"Yes," she said. Of course he did. It had been in his ever word from the beginning, but she hadn't had the wit to comprehend it. Every love story was – at the last – a story of death; this was what the poets insisted. Why should it be any less true the other way around?
~~The Life of Death.
♥ When he had first come to the jungle he had been awed by the sheer multiplicity of beast and blossom, the relentless parade of life here. But he had learned better. This burgeoning diversity was a sham; the jungle pretending itself an artless garden. It was not. Where the untutored trespasser saw only a brilliant show of natural splendours, Locke now recognised a subtle conspiracy at work, in which each thing mirrored some other thing. The trees, the river; a blossom, a bird. In a month's wing, a monkey's eye; on a lizard's back, sunlight on stones. Round and round in a dizzying circle of impersonations, a hall of mirrors which confounded the senses and would, given time, rot reason altogether. See us now, he thought drunkenly as they stood around Cherrick's grave, look at how we play the game too. We're living; but we impersonate the dead better than the dead themselves.
♥ There were half a dozen other graves here. All Europeans, to judge by the names crudely burned into the wooden crosses; killed by snakes, or heat, or longing.
♥ Now, for the first time since their appearance, one of the assembly moved. He was an ancient; fully thirty years older than most of the tribe. He, like the rest, was all but naked. The sagging flesh of his limbs and breasts resembled tanned hide; his step, though the pale eyes suggested blindness, was perfectly confident. Once standing in front of the interlopers he opened his mouth – there were no teeth set in his rotted gums – and spoke. What emerged from his scraggy throat was not a language made of words, but only of sound; a pot-pourri of jungle noises. There was no discernible pattern to the outpouring, it was simply a display – awesome in its way – of impersonations. The man could murmur like a jaguar, screech like a parrot; he could find in his throat the splash of rain on orchids; the howl of monkeys.
The sounds made Stumpf's gorge rise. The jungle had diseased him, dehydrated him and left him wrung out. Now this rheumy-eyed stick-man was vomiting the whole odious place up at him. The raw heat in the circle of huts made Stumpf's head beat, and he was sure, as he stood listening to the sage's din, that the old man was measuring the rhythm of his nonsense to the thud at his temples and wrists.
..the old man, whose song-speech had now lowered in pitch; it was almost lilting. He was singing twilight, Stumpf thought: that brief ambiguity between the fierce day and the suffocating night. Yes, that was it. He could hear in the song the purr and the coo of a drowsy kingdom.
♥ Trick or no trick, the significance of the display was perfectly apparent: he was being accused of murder. Cherrick wasn't about to be cowed, however. He stared back at the old man, matching defiance with defiance.
But the old bastard did nothing, except show his bloody palms, his eyes full of tears. Cherrick could feel his anger growing again. He poked the man's flesh with his finger.
"You don't frighten me," he said, "you understand? I'm not a fool."
As he spoke he seemed to see a shifting in the old man's features. It was a trick of the sun, of course, or of bird0-shadow, but there was, beneath the corruption of age, a hint of the child now dead at the hut door: the tiny mouth even seemed to smile. Then, as subtly as it had appeared, the illusion faded again.
♥ "Your friend's gone bad," said Tetelman.
"No friend," Cherrick replied.
"It rots," Tetelman murmured, half to himself.
"The soul." The word was utterly out of place from Tetelman's whisky-glossed lips. "It's like fruit, you see. It rots."
♥ He lay on his wretched cot, the dark wrapping him up too tightly for him to move, and suddenly the bloody hands were there, in front of him, suspended in the pitch. There was no face, no sky, no tribe. Just the hands.
"Dreaming," Cherrick told himself, but he knew better.
And now, the voice. He was getting his wish; here were the words he had dreamt spoken. Few of them made sense. Cherrick lay like a new-born baby, listening to its parents talk but unable to make any significance of their exchanges. He was ignorant wasn't he?; he tasted the sourness of his stupidity for the first time since childhood. The voice made him fearful of ambiguities he had ridden roughshod over, of whispers his shouting life had rendered inaudible. He fumbled for comprehension, and was not entirely frustrated. The man was speaking of the world, and of exile from the world; of being broken always by what one seeks to possess. Cherrick struggled, wishing he could stop the voice and ask for explanation. But it was already fading, ushered away by the world address of parrots in the trees, raucous and gaudy voices erupting suddenly on every side.
♥ "Is he dead?" Locke asked.
"Almost," Darcy replied.
"Rotted," said Tetelman, as though the word explained the atrocity they had just witnessed. He had a crucifix in his hand, large and crudely carved. It looked like Indian handiwork, Locke thought. The Messiah impaled on the tree was sloe-eyed and indecently naked. He smiled, despite nail and thorn.
♥ He threw himself against the door with increased fervour; again, and again. The door gave.
In the antiseptic cocoon of his room Stumpf felt the first blast of unclean air from the outside world. It was no more than a light breeze that invaded his makeshift sanctuary, but it bore upon its back the debris of the world. Soot and seeds, flakes of skin itched off a thousands scalps, fluff and sand and twists a tiny, whirling speck quite harmless to most living organisms. But this cloud was lethal to Stumpf; in seconds his body became a field of tiny, seeping wounds.
He screeched, and ran towards the door to slam it closed again, flinging himself into a hail of minute razors, each lacerating him. Pressing against the door to prevent Locke from entering, his wounded hands erupted. He was too late to keep Locke out anyhow. The man had pushed the door wide, and was now stepping through, his every movement setting up further currents of air to cut Stumpf down. He snatched hold of the German's wrist. At his grip the skin opened as if beneath a knife.
Behind him, a woman loosed a cry of horror. Locke, realizing that Stumpf was past recanting his laughter, let the man go. Adorned with cuts in every exposed part of his body, and gaining more by the moment, Stumpf stumbled back, blind, and fell beside the bed. The killing air sill sliced him as he sank down; with each agonised shudder he woke new eddies and whirlpools to open him up.
♥ "An education," Dancy commented.
Locke just looked on as Bjørnstrøm moved around the other side of the pit to join Dancy.
"All of them?" Locked asked.
The Norwegian nodded. "One fell swoop," he said, pronouncing each word with unsettling precision.
"Blankets," said Tetelman, naming the murderous weapon.
"But so quickly..." Locke murmured.
"It's very efficient," said Dancy. "And difficult to prove. Even if anyone ever asks."
"Disease is natural," Bjørnstrøm observed. "Yes? Like the trees."
..Others of the Norwegian party had laid down their rifles and were now getting back to work, moving the few bodies still to be pitched amongst their fellows from the forlorn heap beside the pit. Locke could see a child amongst the tangle, and an old man, whom even now the burial party were picking up. The corpse looked jointless as they swung it over the edge of the hole. It tumbled down the shallow incline and came to rest face up, its arms flung up to either side of its head in a gesture of submission, or expulsion. It was the elder of course, whom Cherrick had faced. His palms were still red. There was a neat bullet-hole in his temple. Disease and hopelessness had not been entirety efficient, apparently.
Locked watched while the next of the bodies was thrown into the mass grave, and a third to follow that.
Bjørnstrøm, lingering on the far side of the pit, was lighting a cigarette. He caught Locke's eye.
"So it goes," he said.
~~How Spoilers Breed.
♥ Time was when Ballard would have found the puzzle fascinating; that his every waking thought would have circled on the unravelling ahead. But such commitment had belonged to a man convinced his actions had some significant effect upon the world. He was wiser now. The agents of East and West went about their secret works year in, year out. They plotted; they connived; occasionally (though rarely) they shed blood. There were débâcles and trade-offs and minor tactical victories. But in the end things were much the same as ever.
This city, for instance. Ballard had first come to Berlin in April of 1969. He'd been twenty-nine, fresh from years of intensive training, and ready to live a little. But he had not felt easy here. He found the city charmless; often bleak. It had taken Odell, his colleague for those first two years, to prove that Berlin was worthy of his affections, and once Ballard fell he was lost for life. Now he felt more at home in this divided city than he ever had in London. Its unease, its failed idealism, and – perhaps most acutely of all – its terrible isolation, matched his. He and it, maintaining a presence in a wasteland of dead ambition.
♥ Mironenko's command of English was uncertain, or at least appeared so, though Ballard had the impression that his struggles for sense were as much tactical as grammatical. He might well have presented the same façade in the Russian's situation; it seldom hurt to appear less competent than one was.
♥ "..I try not to think of what they will do." Again, he paused. All trace of the smile, however humourless, had gone. "The Directorate has Sections even I don't have knowledge of. Special hospitals, where nobody can go. They have ways to break a man's soul in pieces."
Ballard, ever the pragmatist, wondered if Mironenko's vocabulary wasn't rather high-flown. In the hands of the KGB he doubted if he would be thinking of his soul's contentment. After all, it was the body that had the nerve-endings.
♥ It mattered little, Ballard thought. Let them watch him all they liked. He was guiltless. If indeed there was such a condition this side of sanity.
♥ Coming here tonight raised the ghost of Odell, whose name would now be scrubbed from conversation because of his involvement with the Mironenko affair. Ballard had seen this process at work before. History did not forgive failure, unless it was so profound as to achieve a kind of grandeur. For the Odells of the world – ambitious men who had found themselves through little fault of their own in a cul-de-sac from which all retreat was barred – for such men threw would be no find words spoken nor medals struck. There would only be oblivion.
♥ Somewhere near, a dog had begun to bark wildly. Ballard turned round to look back the way he'd come, daring the deserted street to display its secrets to him. Whatever was arousing the buzz in his head and the itch on his palms, it was no commonplace anxiety. There was something wrong with the street, despite its show of innocence; it hid terrors.
♥ He seemed not to notice Ballard: his eyes were fixed on the deepest shadows.
The shaking in Ballard's limbs worsened as he followed the boy's gaze; it was all he could do to prevent his teeth from chattering. Nevertheless he continued his advance, not for the boy's sake (heroism had little merit, he'd always been taught) but because he was curious, more than curious, eager, to see what manner of man was capable of such casual violence. To look into the eyes of such ferocity seemed at that moment the most important thing in all the world.
♥ He lay down on the same crumpled sheets in much the same position as he'd lain in before; yet nothing was the same. He didn't know what had changed in him, or how. But he lay there without sleep disturbing his serenity through the remaining hours of the night, trying to puzzle it out, and a little before dawn he remembered the words he had muttered in the face of the delusion. Simple words; but oh, their power.
"I don't believe..." he said; and the Commandments trembled.
♥ There were other faiths, thought Ballard, beyond the one he'd once shared with the creature beneath him. Faiths whose devotions were made in heat and blood, whose dogmas were dreams. Where better to baptise himself into that new faith than here, in the blood of the enemy?
♥ It felt good to be alive, despite the chill that rendered the grim streets grimmer still. He decided, for no particular reason, to go to the Zoo, which, though he had been visiting the city for two decades, he had never done. As he walked it occurred to him that he'd never been as free as he was new; that he had shed mastery like an old coat. No wonder they feared him. They had good reason.
♥ It was perfectly possible that the invitation was a trap of course, set either by his own faction or by the opposition. Perhaps a way to test his allegiance; or to manipulate him into a situation in which he could be easily dispatched. Despite such doubts he had no choice but to go however, in the hope that this blind date was indeed with Mironenko. Whatever dangers this rendezvous brought, they were not so new. Indeed, given his long-held doubts of the efficacy of sight, hadn't every date he'd ever made been in some sense blind?
♥ The room beyond had scarlet floorboards; they glistened as if freshly painted. And now the decorator appeared in person. His torso had been ripped open from neck to navel. He pressed his hands to the breached dam, but they were useless to stem the flood; his blood came in spurts, and with it, his innards. He met Ballard's gaze, his eyes full to overflowing with death, but his body had not yet received the instruction to lie down and die; it juddered on in a pitiful attempt to escape the scene of execution behind him.
♥ "Damn you," he said, defying both the thunder that was coming to blind him again and the phantoms he would be blinded to. Almost as if to test his defiance, the god up ahead shimmered and parted and something that he might have taken for human, but that it had its belly to the ground, slunk into view and out. To his right, he heard growls; to his left, another indeterminate form came and went. He was surrounded, it seemed, by mad men and wild dogs.
And Mironenko; where was he? Part of this assembly, or prey to it? Hearing a half-word spoken behind him, he swung round to see a figure that was plausibly that of the Russian backing into the fog. This time he didn't walk in pursuit, he ran, and his speed was rewarded. The figure re-appeared ahead of him, and Ballard stretched to snatch at the man's jacket. His fingers found purchase, and all at once Mironenko was reeling round, a growl in his throat, and Ballard was staring into a face that almost made him cry out. His mouth was a raw wound, the teeth vast, the eyes slits of molten gold; the lumps at his neck had swelled and spread, so that the Russian's head was no longer raised above his body but part of one undivided energy, head becoming torso with an axis intervening.
"Ballard," the beast smiled.
Its voice clung to coherence only with the greatest difficulty, but Ballard heard the remnants of Mironenko there. The more he scanned the simmering flesh, the more appalled he became.
"Don't be afraid," Mironenko said.
"What disease is this?"
"The only disease I ever suffered was forgetfulness, and I'm cured of that -" He grimaced as he spoke; as if each word was shaped in contradiction to the instincts of his throat.
♥ He didn't want to be a beast like Mironenko. It wasn't freedom, was it, to be so terrible?; it was merely a different kind of tyranny. But then he didn't want to be the first of Cripps' heroic new order either. He belonged to nobody, he realised; not even to himself. He was hopelessly lost. And yet hadn't Mironenko said at that first meeting that the man who did not believe himself lost, was lost? Perhaps better than that – better to exist in the twilight between one state and another, to prosper as best he could by doubt and ambiguity – than to suffer the certainties of the tower.
♥ There was no way out of this trap. They would corner him and exterminate him. He was a beast; a mad dog in a maze. If he'd only killed Suckling when he'd had the strength to do so. But then what good would that have done? The world was full of men like Suckling, men biding their time until they could show their true colours; vile, soft, secret men. And suddenly the beats seemed to move in Ballard, and the thought of the park and the fog and the smile on the face of Mironenko, and he felt a surge of grief for something he'd never had: the life of a monster.
Gideon was almost at the top of the stairs. Though it could only delay the inevitable by moments, Ballard slipped along the landing and opened the first door he found. It was the bathroom. There was a bolt of the door, which he slipped into place.
The sound of running water filled the room. A piece of guttering had broken, and was delivering a torrent of rain-water onto the window-sill. The sound, and the chill of the bathroom, brought the night of delusions back. He remembered the pain and blood; remembered the shower – water beating on his skull, cleansing him of he taming pain. At the thought, four words came to his lips unbidden.
"I do not believe."
♥ "Ballard, said Suckling. There was triumph in the word. "My God, we've got Ballard as well. This is our lucky day."
No, thought the man in the mirror. There was nobody of that name here. Nobody of any name at all, inf act, for weren't names the first act of faith, the first board in the box you buried freedom in? The thing he was becoming would not be named; nor boxed; nor buried. Never again.
♥ Forgetting his other enemies, the beast fell upon the offal and ate.
Somebody said: "Ballard."
The beast swallowed down the dead man's eyes in pone gulp, like prime oysters.
Again, those syllables. "Ballard." He would have gone on with his meal, but that the sound of weeping pricked his ears. Dead to himself he was, not not to grief.
♥ The voice ebbed and flowed. He followed the sound across the roofless interior to where a wolf was standing, surrounded by an attentive audience, an open book in its front paws. At Ballard's approach one or two of the audience turned their luminous eyes up to him. The reader halter.
"Ssh!" said one, "the Comrade is reading to us."
It was Mironenko who spoke. Ballard slipped into the ring of listeners beside him, as the reader took up the story afresh.
"And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth..."
Ballard had heard the words before, but tonight they were new.
"and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air..."
He looked around the circle of listeners as the words described their familiar pattern.
"...and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."
Somewhere near, a beast was crying.
~~Twilight at the Towers.
♥ Amongst a certain set Harry D'Amour liked to believe he had some small reputation – a coterie which did not, alas, include his ex-wife, his creditors or those anonymous critics who regularly posted dog's excrement through his office letterbox. But the woman who was on the phone now, her voice so full of grief she might have been crying for half a year, and was about to begin again, she knew him for the paragon he was.
♥ "I don't like this city. It's too hot. And too cruel."
"Don't blame New York," he said. "It can't help itself.
♥ "I'd think sometimes – it was a kind of miracle that he let me into his life..."
Harry wanted to say Swann would have been mad not to have done so, but the comment was inappropriate. She didn't want blandishments; didn't need them. Didn't need anything, perhaps, but her husband alive again.
♥ "Swann was my life," she added softly, apropos of nothing; and everything.
♥ Swann was a legend. I don't want his memory besmirched."
"You should write a book," Harry said. "Tell the whole story once and for all. You were with him a long time, I hear."
"Oh yes," said Valentin. "Long enough to know better than to tell the truth."
♥ Harry briefly had time to register that no light was finding its way through the windows from the street. Then the insanity began.
Something moved in the blackness: vague forms rose and fell. It took him a moment to recognise them. The flowers! Invisible hands were tearing the wreaths and tributes apart, and tossing the blossoms up into the air. He followed their descent, but they didn't hit the ground. It seemed the floorboards had lost all faith in themselves, and disappeared, so the blossoms just kept falling – down, down – through the floor of the room below, and through the basement floor, away to God alone knew what destination. Fear gripped Harry, like some old dope-pusher promising a terrible high. Even those few boards that remained beneath this feet were becoming insubstantial. In seconds he would go the way of the blossoms.
He reeled around to locate the chair he'd got up from – some fixed point in this vertiginous nightmare. The chair was still there; he could just discern its form in the gloom. With torn blossoms raining down upon him he reached for it, but even as his hand took hold of the arm, the floor beneath the chair gave up the ghost, and now, by a ghastly light that was thrown up from the pit that yawned beneath his feet, Harry saw it tumble away into Hell, turning over and over 'til it was pin-prick small.
Then it was gone; and the flowers were gone, and the walls and the windows and every damn thing was gone but him.
Not quite everything. Swann's casket remained, its lid still standing open, its overlay neatly turned back like the sheet on a child's bed. The trestle had gone, as had the floor beneath the trestle. But the casket floated in the dark air for all the world like some morbid illusion, while from the depths a rumbling sound accompanied the trick like the roll of a snare-drum.
Harry felt the solidity failing beneath him; felt the pit call. Even as his feet left the ground, that ground faded to nothing, and for a terrifying moment he hung over the Gulfs, his hands seeking the lip of the casket. His right hand caught hold of one of the handles, and closed thankfully around it. His arm was almost jerked from its socket as it took his body-weight, but he flung his other arm up and found the casket-edge. Using it as purchase, he hauled himself up like a half-drowned sailor. It was a strange life-boat, but then this was a strange sea. Infinitely deep, infinitely terrible.
Even as he laboured to secure himself a better hand-hold, the casket shook, and Harry looked up to discover that the dead man was sitting upright. Swann's eyes opened wide. He turned them on Harry; they were far from benign. The next moment the dead illusionist was scrambling to his feet – the floating casket rocking ever more violently with each movement. Once vertical, Swann proceeded to dislodge his guest by grinding his heel in Harry's knuckles. Harry looked up at Swann, begging for him to stop.
The Great Pretender was a sight to see. His eyes were starting from his sockets; his shirt was torn open to display the exit-wound in his chest. It was bleeding afresh. A rain of cold blood fell upon Harry's upturned face. And still the heel ground at his hands. Harry felt his grip slipping. Swann, sensing his approaching triumph, began to smile.
"Fall, boy!" he said. "Fall!"
Harry could take no more. In a frenzied effort to heave himself he let go of the handle in his right hand, and reached up to snatch at Swann's trouser-leg. His fingers found the hem, and he pulled. The smile vanished from the illusionist's face as he felt his balance go. He reached behind him to take hold of the casket lid for support, but the gesture only tipped the casket further over. The plush cushion tumbled past Harry's head; blossoms followed.
Swann howled in his fury and delivered a vicious kick to Harry's hand. It was an error. The casket tipped over entirely and pitched the man out. Harry had time to glimpse Swann's appalled face as the illusionist fell past him. Then he too lost his grip and tumbled after him.
The dark air whined past his ears. Beneath him, the Gulfs spread their empty arms.
♥ He'd last felt fear the equal of this in Wyckoff Street, when Mimi Lomax's demon-lover had finally thrown off any pretence to humanity. The room had filled with the stink of ether and human dirt, and the demon had stood there in its appalling nakedness and shown him scenes that had turned his bowels to water. They were with him now, those scenes. They would be with him forever.
..But if the events in Wyckoff Street had taught him anything, it was that once touched by such malignancy as he had seen and dreamt in the last few hours, there could be no causal disposal of it. He had to follow it to its source, however repugnant that thought was, and make with it whatever bargains the strength of his hand allowed.
There was no good time to do business like this: the present would have to suffice.
♥ He was none the wiser now than he'd been at the outset, except that he'd learned again the lesson he'd been taught in Wyckoff Street: that when dealing with the Gulfs it was wiser never to believe your eyes. The moment you trusted your senses, the moment you believed a tiger to be a tiger, you were half theirs.
Not a complicated lesson, but it seemed he had forgotten it, like a fool, and it had taken two deaths to teach it him afresh. Maybe it would be simpler to have the rule tattooed on the back of his hand, so that he couldn't check the time without being reminded: Never believe your eyes.
♥ "..She was a prostitute, you know. I don't suppose she told you that. Swann once said to me he married her because only prostitutes know the value of love."
♥ But were such forces ever off-guard? Was there ever a minute in their maggoty lives when their eyelids drooped and sleep tamed them for a space? No. In Harry's experience it was only the good who needed sleep; iniquity and its practitioners were awake every eager moment, planning fresh felonies.
♥ Despite what Valentin had said, there was no more sound or sight of occupancy up here than there had been below, but as they advanced towards the master bedroom where Swann lay, a rotten tooth in Harry's lower jaw that had lately been quiescent began to throb afresh, and his bowels ached to break wind. Thew anticipation was crucifying. He felt a barely suppressible urge to yell out, and to oblige the enemy to show its hand, if indeed it had hands to show.
♥ He heard Valentin unloose an oath, and looked up to see that the mirror had given up all pretence to reflection, and that something was moving up from its liquid depths, bringing the light with it.
"What is it?" Harry breathed.
"The Castrato," came the reply. "Will you go?"
There was no time to obey Valentin's panicked instruction however, before the hidden thing broke the plane of the mirror and invaded the room. Harry had been wrong. It did not carry the light with it as it came: it was the light. Or rather, some holocaust blazed in its bowels, the glare of which escaped through the creature's body by whatever route it could. It had once been human; a mountain of a man with the belly and the breasts of a neolithic Venus. But the fire in its body had twisted it out of true, breaking out through its palms and its navel, burning its mouth and nostrils into one ragged hole. It had, as its name implied, been unsexed; from that hole too, light spilled. By it, the decay of the flowers speeded into seconds. The blossoms withered and died. The room was filled in moments with the stench of rotting vegetable matter.
♥ "..But everybody calls me Byron. I'm a poet, see? Leastways, I am at weekends."
"See, any other driver would be freaked out, right? Finding two guys with a body in the back seat. But the way I see it, it's all material.
"For the poems."
"Right," said Byron. "The Muse if a fickle mistress. You have to take it where you find it, you know?"
♥ "Nothing the Prince of Lies offers to humankind is of the least value," Valentin said, "or it wouldn't be offered. Swann didn't know that when he first made his Covenant. But he soon learned. Miracles are useless. Magic is a distraction from the real concerns. It's rhetoric. Melodrama."
"So what exactly are the real concerns?"
"You should know better than I," Valentin replied. "Fellowship, maybe? Curiosity? Certainly it matters not in the least if water can be made into wine, or Lazarus to live another year. ..It didn't take Swann long to realise he'd sold his soul for a mess of pottage," he explained. "And when he did he was inconsolable. At least he was for a while. Then he began to contrive a revenge."
"By taking Hell's name in vain. By using the magic which it boasted of as a trivial entertainment, degrading the power of the Gulfs by passing off their wonder-working as mere illusion. It was, you see, an act of heroic perversity. Every time a trick of Swann's was explained away as sleight-of-hand, the Gulfs squirmed."
♥ "Why then?"
"Nowhere to go..." she said, her voice fading by the syllable. "Nothing to believe in. All lies. Everything: lies."
"So you sided with Butterfield?"
"Better Hell," she said, "than a false Heaven."
♥ Harry sat on the floor, leaning against the toppled cabinet, and tried not to think of Dorothea's face as the bullet found her, or of the creature he was now reduced to needing.
.."Keep your hands off me!"
Valentin withdrew, bruised by the rebuffal. "I'm sorry," he said. "Maybe I shouldn't hope for your acceptance. But I do."
Harry said nothing, just got to his feet amongst the litter of reports and photographs. He'd had a dirty life: spying on adulteries for vengeful spouses; dredging gutters for lost children; keeping company with scum because it rose to the top, and the rest just drowned. Could Valentin's soul be much grimier?
♥ The music clutched him close, and now – as he descended the next flight of stairs – the musicians came into view.
They were brighter than he had anticipated, and more various. More baroque in their configurations (the names, the multiple heads); more particular in their decoration (the suit of flayed faces; the rouged anus); and, his drugged eyes now stung to see, more atrocious in their choice of instruments. Such instruments! Byron was there, his bones sucked clean and drilled with stops, his bladder and lungs teased trough slashes in his body as reservoirs for the piper's breath. He was draped, inverted, across the musician's lap, and even now was played upon – the sacs ballooning, the tongueless head giving out a wheezing note. Dorothea was slumped beside him, no less transformed, the strings of her gut made taut between her splinted legs like an obscene lyre; her breasts drummed upon. There were other instruments too, men who had come off the street and fallen prey to the hand. Even Chaplin was there, much of his flesh burned away, his rib-cage played upon indifferently well.
♥ The moment – as in the best performances – was held suspended. Did it last a minute? Two minutes? Five? Harry would never know. Nor did he care to analyse. Disbelief was for cowards; and doubt a fashion that crippled the spine.
♥ There was precious little of the magician left once the fire had done its work; and nothing that vaguely resembled a man.
Things came and went away; that was a kind of magic. And in between?; pursuits and conjurings; horrors, guises. The occasional joy.
That there was room for joy; ah! that was magic too.
~~The Last Illusion.
♥ Amongst connoisseurs of the bizarre, McNeal's story was told in reverential whispers. How the boy had passed himself off as a medium, inventing stories on behalf of the departed for his own profit; and how the dead had finally tired of his mockery, and broken into the living world to exact an immaculate revenge. They had written upon him; tattooed their true testaments upon his skin so that he would never again take their grief in vain. They had turned his body into a living book, a book of blood, every inch of which was minutely engraved with their histories.
Wyburd was not a credulous man. He had never quite believed the story – until now. But here was living proof of its veracity, standing before him. There was no part of McNeal's exposed skin which was not itching with tiny words. Though it was four years and more since the ghosts had come for him, the flesh still looked tender, as though the wounds would never entirely heal.
♥ "Why do you talk about yourself in the third person?" he asked McNeal, as the boy returned with the glass. "Like you weren't here...?"
"The boy?" McNeal said. "He isn't here. He hasn't been here in a long time. ..His skin," the boy prompted. "That's what you came for, isn't it?" Wyburd emptied his glass with two swallows, making no reply. McNeal shrugged. "Everybody has the right to silence," he said. "Except for the boy, of course. No silence for him." He looked down at his hand, turning it over to appraise the writing on his palm. "The stories go on, night and day. Never stop. They tell themselves, you see. They bleed and bleed. You can never hush them; never heal them.
He is mad, Wyburd thought, and somehow the realisation made what he was about to do easier. Better to kill a sick animal than a healthy one.
"There's a road, you know..." the boy was saying. He wasn't even looking at his executioner. "A road the dead go down. He saw it. Dark, strange road, full of people. Not a day gone by when he hasn't... hasn't wanted to go back there."
"Back?" said Wyburd, happy to keep the boy talking. His hand went to his jacket pocket; to the knife. It comforted him in the presence of this lunacy.
"Nothing's enough," McNeal said. "Not love. Not music. Nothing."
Clasping the knife, Wyburd drew it from his pocket. The boy's eyes found the blade, and warmed to the sight.
"You never told him how much it was worth," he said.
"Two hundred thousand," Wyburd replied.
"Anyone he knows?"
The assassin shook his head. "An exile," he replied. "In Rio. A collector."
♥ The dead have highways. They run, unerring lines of ghost-trains, of dream carriages, across the wasteland behind our lives, bearing an endless traffic of departed souls. They have sign-posts, these highways, and bridges and lay-bys. They have turnpikes and intersections.
It was at one of these intersections that Leon Wyburd caught sight of the man in the red suit. ..Leon in turn told of his last moments.
It was a great relief to tell the story. Not because he wanted to be remembered, but because the telling relieved him of the tale. It no longer belonged to him, that life, that death. He had better business, as did they all. Roads to travel; splendours to drink down. He felt the landscape widen. Felt the air brightening.
What the boy had said was true. The dead have highways.
Only the living are lost.
~~The Book of Blood (a postscript): On Jerusalem Street.