An extract from Night Music, a short collection of linked horror stories.
We live on a placid island of ignorance,
in the midst of black seas of infinity. [1.]
(To Be Found Amongst the Papers of this Late Reader,
Six Days Hence.)
Six days after Anna leaves you, you will find yourself driving – without a destination in mind – alone through the Stygian blackness of a summer’s night. There are no other cars on the road. As you drive, your headlights illuminate the hedgerows. You glimpse that disjointed bas-relief of branches, swollen and knotted as arthritic hands, passing knuckle over knuckle overhead.
A road sign looms. You recognise the name. A small seaside town which you have not visited in person for nigh on two years. Not since Anna. Not since your budding relationship’s consummation, and long before your differences of opinion proved too numerous to overcome. For the first six days by the shore, a marvellous time was had by all. The initial embryo of disagreement was inseminated over dinner when you remarked upon the crudeness, impropriety, and erudition – or lack thereof – of your waiter (a quality only to be expected from a man of his cultural background), and Anna responded by informing you that this was ‘a bit of an arseholish thing to say’. Whilst the following discourse was terminated by the arrival of said waiter bringing you a bread basket, it would later be revisited in an incalculable variety of forms and contexts over the following two years, until Anna declared with customary frankness that she was, pardon her French, ‘sick of this horse shit’ – whereupon she packed her bags and quit your residence with a dispiriting lack of fanfare. You have not seen her since, and nor has she attempted to contact you.
You arrive at the seafront without recognising it as such, initially believing the luminiferous flicker of the gibbous moon upon the waves to be the lights of the town. A few hundred metres away from where you have parked your car is a pier. The booming groan of the ocean fills your ears, and you put on your headphones to block out the sound. Water shifts hugely like a bear turning over in its sleep. You think that it is beautiful but not the kind of beautiful that you can reach out and touch.
By the time you arrive at the end of the pier, you are shivering. You direct your gaze out across the vast expanse of sea, searching for a sign – a ship, a lighthouse – but the ocean is flat and empty. You cannot even make out the line where ocean meets sky. How strange it is, you think, that the only ones who have seen what lives at the bottom of the ocean are those who have never returned.
You walk for an hour. Your feet in your scuffed Converse are aching, and the bag on your shoulder grows heavier by each passing minute. You have no idea where you left your car. It is beginning to dawn on you that, perchance, you may have made something of a miscalculation. Although there is enough cash in your wallet for one night in a cheap B&B, the purchase of food in addition to board may not be on the cards, and petrol is another conundrum that you do not feel sufficiently equipped to face at this current point in time – certainly not before a good night’s sleep, if such a thing is even achievable. You taste metal. You have chewed your lip bloody. What have you done? You have no credit card. No place to stay. A few coins, enough for a payphone, so that you may call home if the fancy takes you; but why would it? For the last three years, Anna has been the only home you have had. And now there is no Anna.
At the edge of the parade looms a Victorian-style guesthouse, overlooking the sea and backing on to a field of bare, uneven grass. OPEN, says the neon sign in the window in cherry-red lettering. But the windows are dark. There is no light or sound, indeed no stirring of any persons within these hallowed walls. Beside the front door is a corkboard with a glass cover, promising low rates, good service, and breakfast-included-in-the-fee. For all its talk of money, the sign does not actually list any specific prices. As you read down, though, it occurs to you that a place this far from the town centre likely will not charge much for one night. How serendipitous! For one night, all told, is the extent of your aspirations. One night. Tomorrow, you will allow your life to begin again.
You remove your headphones. Blur’s latest single is still audible, though tinny. He talks at speed, he gets nosebleeds… You yank the cord out of your Walkman before replacing both articles in your reticule, and when you raise your fist to knock upon the door, it swings open wide before your hand.
Inside, the hallway is dark as a yawning mouth. The warmth is not oppressive, but you are at once obliged to remove your denim jacket and knot it about your waist. Up ahead, a flight of tenebrous wooden stairs rises into a deeper darkness. The fraying carpet could be wine-red, or black. It is difficult to tell in the gloom. You linger in the doorway, sea air at your back and an unfamiliar corridor at your front. The churchy hush of the place warns you against calling out.
You ascend the steps. They do not creak.
When you reach the landing, you find yourself confronted with a second door, smaller and more modest. There is no sound from within. You turn the handle, encountering only minimal resistance, and the door opens.
You are in a small bar, or maybe a dining room. There are tables and a jukebox. A reception desk at one end, with an elderly woman sitting behind it, tongue between her teeth as she knits (or perhaps crochets) away at a shapeless pile in her lap. No further presences are evident within the establishment, save for a young woman sweeping up broken glass nearby. Her black hair is pulled back in a braid that swings as she straightens up, and her skin is the colour of freshly brewed cocoa. At the sound of the door closing, she looks your way.
‘Hi,’ you say. ‘Sorry. Didn’t know if you were open.’
The young woman smiles, showing bright white teeth. It is contagious. You return it as best you can, and realise as you do so that whatever lingering desire you might have had to leave – to retreat back down the stairs, to flee outside into the bitter watches of the night – has departed you. So, indeed, has the opportunity, as the young lady now turns swiftly to address her elderly companion, calling out: ‘Mrs March? We’ve got a new guest!’
It seems impolite to point out that you have not yet decided whether you wish to remain on the premises. Instead, you lift your hand in a feeble wave. The sweet-faced beldam hitherto referred to as ‘Mrs March’ looks up at you. In a cut-glass accent, she enquires whether you will be wanting a room.
‘Er. Just a drink, if that’s OK. Is your bar still open?’
For an instant a flicker of something murky and saturnine crosses her visage, but then it is gone, and she is nothing but an old woman with an apple-doll face and a handful of wool. Addressing the dark girl, she says, ‘Lilith. Why don’t you get our guest a drink?’
Lilith turns to you, sweeping her braid over one shoulder, and enquires what you would like.
‘I’ll have anything,’ you reply. ‘Whatever’s cheap.’
She hands you a wine menu. Try as you might, you are unable to make sense of the symbols inscribed upon the laminated surface. It is marked with eldritch hieroglyphs, and the sight of them instils in you a nameless dread that thrums within your veins. Your finger trembles as it traces the letters, as if coaxed into motion by some impulse not your own.
Lilith reaches out, takes the menu from you, and turns it the right way up. She says, ‘The Chardonnay is good.’
You order the Chardonnay.
‘Well, then, that’s sorted. I’ll leave you two alone, shall I?’ says Mrs March. And to Lilith: ‘I’ll be downstairs if you need me.’
‘See you tomorrow,’ Lilith replies.
Mrs March puts her knitting on the desk and places the needles on top of it at right angles to one another, like chopsticks. Then she stands and begins to make her way towards the door. Her walk is lurching, a touch bow-legged. You consider standing up to help, but fear that she might consider that patronising. The door closes behind her. And then it is just you and Lilith. ‘Let me get you that drink,’ she says.
You sip your Chardonnay. For a long while neither of you speak. Lilith leans against the wall, sipping from her glass, the abandoned broom lying at her feet. You perform two full revolutions on your bar stool, and drink two measures of wine from the dusty bottle on the counter, all the while wondering how to strike up a conversation. She seems content with silence. Perhaps, you think, you should also try to be content with silence. You dare a quick glance sideways, and jump.
Lilith is staring. Not looking, staring. Her eyes bore into you, bright and black and unashamed. It feels like a vivisection. You ask if there is something on your face.
She shakes her head. A sharp eye-tooth briefly crests her lower lip. ‘Just looking.’
The silence returns. There is a peculiar new quality to it. Lilith is no longer watching you, and you take the opportunity to get your own back. Observing. Cataloguing. Her skin, dusky and poreless. The sweep of her lashes. How could you have ever thought she was merely pretty? She is beautiful, delectable, an exotic treat that you can scarcely wait to sample. Something hard and wanting clenches inside you like a fist.
‘So. Lilith. Unusual name,’ you venture.
You probe further. ‘Foreign, is it?’
‘Something like that.’
‘Blimey. Well, I suppose it’s a bit more creative than all the Shaniquas and Destinys out there, isn’t it?’ you say.
You rather hope that this remark will be greeted with a laugh, out of politeness if nothing else, but Lilith does not respond save for a widening of her smile.
Something is not quite right about that smile. The corners of her mouth do not stop where they ought to. A high-pitched tone begins to whine in your left ear, as if a violin-string has been plucked – but then it dies away, and you find yourself smiling back. This is good and nice and if you play your cards right it could be even nicer. Coughing slightly to cover the pause, you enquire how long she has worked here.
‘Oh, a long time. A long, long time.’
‘Longer than a year?’
She laughs at you, although not spitefully.
‘Quite a bit longer. Yes. So, tell me: do you have plans for tomorrow?’
Her voice is low and husky. Probably she smokes.
‘I don’t even have any plans for today,’ you tell her.
‘There’s not much of today left.’ She hooks your gaze like a fish and holds it. ‘Do you mean you don’t have any plans for tonight?’
You are caught. Half of you wants to thrash and fight against her, but the other half – the half that matters – has already gone limp. You tell her – rendered honest by her beauty, and by the not-inconsiderable quantity of wine that you have imbibed – that you have no plans.
‘Good.’ She smiles again.
One obstacle remains between you and glorious erotic fulfilment. You take a sip of your drink, then brazen it out: ‘Is it a bad time for me to mention that I don’t actually have anywhere to stay tonight?’
‘We’ve got plenty of rooms free.’
‘I… don’t know if I have the money? The room prices weren’t listed.’
You half-expect her to manifest your fantasies with that old chestnut: maybe you can find some other way to pay for it? To your eternal regret, she shrugs her shoulders and informs you that if you are a man of limited means, a cheque will be a permissible alternative to cash. This does not sound terribly legitimate, but at this point your course has been charted, your destination plotted. You have become a marionette, your strings dangling from Lilith’s capable hands. For propriety’s sake you affect a little performative reluctance, a touch of oh-but-I-shouldn’t-really and well-if-you-say-so. The doubletalk is necessary, though tedious. You know what she wants, and she knows that you know – but if either of you are fool enough to acknowledge it openly, the magic will be snuffed out, and in its wake will remain a single sad fact: that this is a sordid encounter between strangers, driven by no higher emotions than loneliness and lust.
Lilith stands, unravelling her braid, long fingers raking through her hair. In the dim light its former blackness is shot through with hues of red.
‘I’ll go and book you a room. Double or single bed?’
You drain the last of your wine. ‘Double, please.’
Lilith reaches up for the key.
The room is as bright as a pharmacy, and its décor is so antiquarian that when you go to turn on the television you half-expect it to be black and white. The programme is clearly intended for children, or those of a particularly simple-minded disposition. It has puppets. They are not, all told, very good puppets; their painted expressions make them look crafty and manic, and the hands holding their strings keep appearing and disappearing above them like a conjurer’s trick.
It seems a strange thing to be playing at this time of night. You wonder aloud if there is anything else on, but Lilith has already seated herself upon the bed with her hands folded in her lap. Her head is bowed, her black hair falling about her shoulders. The line of her parting resembles a road. ‘You don’t want to watch TV?’ you say.
Beneath the curtain of hair, a smile flickers. ‘There are other things I’d rather be doing.’
You sit beside her on the bed. She presses her thumb against your cheekbone, turning your head to face her. Her fingers are warm. There is a plasticky quality to them, as though she is wearing very thin rubber gloves.
It is quick and chaste, little more than a testing of waters. When it is done she leans back, observing you with a cryptical intensity.
‘Take your clothes off.’
You obey. First you remove the jacket still tied about your waist, and then your T-shirt, followed by shoes and socks. It is necessary to abandon dignity whilst you fight your way out of your baggy trousers. Sufficiently unclothed, you turn to face Lilith. She observes you, openly assessing, and grins. ‘Mm. You’ll do.’
‘Don’t damn me with faint praise,’ you say.
She laughs and gestures to the bed beside her, and you sit back down. She is still dressed, and you feel more naked than you have ever felt in your life. That, you hypothesise, is precisely her intention; and in spite of your misgivings, you do not ask her to disrobe.
‘Good,’ says Lilith, and kisses you again.
At first the novelty of it is enough. She is not Anna. She is a stranger, and that fact alone sends a dangerous thrill through you. But after the initial pleasure of not-Anna begins to fade, you realise that your skin is creeping, as if a thousand tiny insectoid creatures are scuttering across it. You are lying down now, facing her. Over her shoulder you have a clear view of the TV. A puppet bounces about amidst clangs, thuds, and the faint roar of canned laughter.
‘Sorry. Sorry. Can we just…’
You sit up, pulling away.
‘Just turn this off… Sorry. Distracting.’
The remote is lying on the floor nearby. One push of a button and the display shrinks to a narrow white line and fwips out of sight.
‘It was a little distracting, wasn’t it,’ says Lilith. She looks at the black screen. ‘Better now.’
But it is not better. Now that the TV is off you can hear everything: the wet sound of saliva, the shifting of fabric, your own breathing and heartbeat, the muffled noises of two people trying to pretend that they are enjoying themselves. The room is damp. The light overhead is too bright, and it buzzes – the noise faint enough that it is not immediately perceptible, but loud enough that once you hear it you cannot stop hearing it.
Her skin, too, feels peculiar. You noticed it before: that labile quality, the slight dampness of it. There is an earthy smell, not unlike compost. No matter how hard you try to lose yourself into the fluid slowness of mouth against mouth, the scuttering is back, and the touch of her hand against the back of your neck makes you shudder. She does not appear to notice your cadaverous rigidity, and instead proceeds to kiss and suck her way down your neck while you stare at the television.
The television stares back. Its convex screen bulges out at you, offering up a distorted reflection. Lilith, clothed. You, naked. Your skin is as lymphatic as a corpse’s. Your hands resemble dead crabs. Your thighs raw dough. Lilith has her back to the reflection. All that is visible is her hair, an oil-black river against the rich expanse of her neck and shoulders.
You close your eyes and focus on sensation. The reddish hue of light through lowered lids. The scratchy coverlet against your bare skin. The flat press of teeth. Your hand is in Lilith’s hair. Your fingers scratching gently at her scalp. That looseness again, like the skin of a boiled tomato. You work your fingers in and tug, just lightly – and something gives.
It feels strange. It feels silky. You take your hand back and there, in your left palm, is a substantial chunk of Lilith’s black hair. It has come away from her head as easily as dry grass.
‘What the fuck?’ you say.
Shaking the hair off your hand and on to the bed, you struggle to sit up and get a better look at the damage. Lilith’s head is still bent low. Her face is pressed to the hollow of your throat, and you see straight away that there is no blood. Merely a bald patch at the back of Lilith’s skull. You scramble into an upright position and endeavour to push her away, but fright renders your movements maladroit and her body has grown heavy and clammy as a sack of cement. The fetor of earth is worse than ever. As you pull away, she falls prostrate upon the mattress with a wet thump, and at last you see – really see – what you have been touching.
What you have been kissing.
What you have been –
I had my mouth on that, you think, and the bile rushes up your throat. You barely manage to swallow it. Before the thing that is not Lilith can stir, you are on your feet, grabbing a towelling dressing gown from the back of the door, and bolt out into the corridor.
All the other doors are shut tight. When you stagger down the stairs onto the lower landing, fumbling to do up the ties on the dressing gown, the rest of the guesthouse is in total darkness. Nobody is in the bar. Nobody is in the lounge. The front door, when you reach it, is locked and latched. You kick the wood and pitch your full weight against it, but to no avail.
And that is when you hear the music.
—who like boys to be girls who do boys like they’re girls who do girls like they’re boys—
Your unthinking hand moves to switch off your Walkman, but it is back in the room with the thing that is not Lilith. This is something else. Your vision tunnels as though you are looking through a pinhole. Every breath a wheeze coming up from deep in your chest.
—nothing is wasted only reproduced—
It’s coming from downstairs, from the ground floor. The ground floor! A notion comes to you: was the ground floor not, after all, where your generous proprietor Mrs March purported to be going earlier that self-same night? Maybe she is down there. Maybe she could phone somebody for you. Maybe she could help.
The music emanates from a door at the far end of the hall. It creeps from the cracks, and even consumed by terror you find its familiarity a comfort.
—always should be someone you really love—
The handle is cold.
The door opens wide.
Well. So much for endings.
Here is your world now, passing by, bright and lived-in. Here is your first Saturday job, working at the Planetarium gift shop, because you wanted to be an astronomer but couldn’t get the A-Levels. It should have been easy. New stars are discovered every day. All you had to do was know the night sky well enough to pick out things that were already there and hadn’t been seen yet. Whenever you were outside the city, somewhere the light pollution was less obstructive and you were permitted a clear view of the heavens, you used to look for your favourites. The Hesperides, Draco, Orion’s Belt…
No stars now, though. Their light will fade. It will be dark there, dark as the bottom of the ocean, and for a moment this will comfort you: perhaps here, in this hollow abyss where the sun does not dare to penetrate, you can be safe. Perhaps –
But then something will move. Something impossibly vast will move and turn its bulk towards you, sending ripples fanning out through the black water, and you will understand that it is too late. A cyclopean eye will revolve; a frightful mass of pulpy tissue will shift and writhe; tentacles will uncurl. It has seen you. There is nothing left to do. It sees you now. And down here in the deep, where space and direction lose all semblance of meaning, you do not know which way to swim.
[1.] Lovecraft, H. P., Call of Cthulhu.