“It is said that in Ulthar, which lies beyond the river Skai, no man may kill a cat; and this I can verily believe as I gaze upon him who sitteth purring before the fire. For the cat is cryptic, and close to strange things which men cannot see. He is the soul of antique Aegyptus, and bearer of tales from forgotten cities in Meroë and Ophir. He is the kin of the jungle’s lords, and heir to the secrets of hoary and sinister Africa. The Sphinx is his cousin, and he speaks her language; but he is more ancient than the Sphinx, and remembers that which she hath forgotten.” —H.P. Lovecraft, ‘The Cats of Ulthar’
THE WAIL OF a cat is a dreadful sound. I think it is even more disturbing because it sounds so similar to that of the cry of a baby, immediately conjuring up worrying thoughts of an infant in trouble. Many a night I have lain in bed, unable to sleep due to the wretched screams that the felines in my street have directed at my house, their continuous, cacophonous caterwaul of catastrophe drumming through my mind, as if they were consciously, sentiently attempting to drive me over the edge.
Or perhaps they have been trying to warn me of something? An omen maybe, a harbinger of bad tidings.
Why were there so many of them that would gather? And why only at night, after the daylight hours had quickly been enveloped by the oncoming darkness and its unholy secrets? I fear I may never know the answers to my questions as I now take refuge in the mountains of Cavehill, barely still human, barely sane…
It was late-afternoon last Thursday. Autumnal leaves were sweeping through my street in a gentle October breeze, freshly fallen from the almost skeletal trees, Hallowe’en approaching.
I’d finished my work for the day and had decided upon a nap before having my dinner. I was lying on top of my bed with the window open, listening to sounds of the outside world in the street below, feeling myself drifting off, when I heard the crying. It was different to what it was before, however. It didn’t sound like that of a cat, or even a baby, more like a child. At first I thought it was nothing to concern myself with – probably just kids being kids – but it continued … incessantly.
I got up and looked out of the window. Dusk had settled but I could make out the figure of a young girl, aged about eleven, wearing a red dress and standing in the shadows at the corner of the street, hiding underneath some trees, her hands covering her face, audibly weeping softly, clearly upset or in some form of distress.
I wanted to help her, but was apprehensive at the same time. Where were her parents? Why had no one else come to her rescue? Why was the street now deserted? Had I fallen asleep, now dreaming?
A moral obligation made me rise from my bed and go outside to try and aid her.
As I approached, the child’s cries intensified. I nervously, gently placed my hand on her shoulder and asked what was wrong.
The girl removed her hands from her face to reveal the physical embodiment of a nightmare. Her eyes blazed deep crimson, behind them Hell itself resided. Her mouth opened to greet me with large, razor-sharp fangs which she hastily sank deep into my throat.
As I collapsed to the ground in shock and a piercing, trembling pain, I noticed that the mysterious cats of the night had begun to gather round the scene, watching intently, silently, contentedly. Gleefully. At first there were just a few, then dozens of them arrived, their sleek, silk-like fur black as the night itself.
As panic set in all I could do was flee.
I haven’t stopped fleeing since.
I’ve been hiding on the Cavehill for a few days now. I’m very sick, hungry and my throat is badly injured. I think I may have lost my mind completely.
I can hear something approaching, its wails echoing in my ears.
It sounds like the cry of a baby.
We all have our secrets, addictions we can’t exorcise.
Here at the freak show every depravity has its prize.
Hush now and step up to the booth.
Every patron requires a ticket to learn the truth.
Dolls all lined in perfection, every smile stitched for pleasure.
But in the end does anything really measure?
Let every demon go.
Daddy knows her every thirst, corruption take it slow.
She develops among the toxins, dependence turned to sin.
We’re all prisoners to the vice that does us in.
The house burns beautifully, every monster left to writhe.
An arsonist birthed the moment Momma lied.
He craves the heat, hoping it will cleanse the pain.
Even among freaks, sadism does nothing to numb the shame.
A girl, a boy.
Evolution’s deadly toys.
Mechanical they grin at every fatal attraction.
A ticket to Hell, hungers denied satisfaction.
Come one come all and guess the end just for kicks.
Reach deep and taste every lick.
Always a dosage for the weak.
Now who’s the freak?
A writer of dark psychological horror, Jessica's work has been published in Phantasmagoria where she is a regular contributor, as well as being a member of the Horror Writers Association. Her poetry has also appeared in the HWA Poetry Showcase. She is finishing a degree in Psychology and Human Development, working on her first book, Antidote of Orphans, and in the process of developing a horror-themed ASMR channel called Pick Your Own Pumpkin. She lives in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee.
Once upon a childhood, life tasted of grape.
But over time the forest changed, as did its hungers.
Every birthday the wolf offered safety in return for the smallest of favors.
A minute of your time, an hour after dark, a lifetime in which to condition you.
How big your hands are as they hold, as they hurt.
Red velvet hood pulled down low to mark, as well as to hide.
Once upon a womanhood, life tasted of cherry.
But over time the forest changed, as did its cruelty.
Every anniversary the wolf offered fidelity in return for the smallest of submissions.
A cup of kindness, an ounce of decency, a pound of flesh in which to make you mine.
How big your hands are as they humiliate, as they control.
Beautiful trinkets given to forgive, to forget.
Once upon a separation, life tasted of rust.
But over time the forest changed, as did its methods.
Every violation the wolf offered another day to live in return for penance.
A turn of the cheek, an array of emotional scars, a knife straight through the heart.
How big your hands are as they destroy, as they erase.
Home broken, every dream, every bone.
Once upon a funeral, death tasted of earth.
But over time the forest changed, as did their graves.
With every victim the wolf grew older, more powerless.
A macabre reflection, an anatomy subject to rot, a feeble mind in which to face his end.
How big your hands are as they clutch, as they pray.
Younger wolves laughing, stepping over, stepping in.
The following is inspired, in part, by Ambrose Bierce’s ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ and the 1961 French film version of it, La Rivière du hibou, directed by Robert Enrico, and which was later featured as an episode of The Twilight Zone, originally broadcast in 1964.
THE NOOSE WAS tightening its grip around Crazy Sam’s neck. The pressure on his throat and lungs was immense as he struggled for breath, gasping and wheezing, whilst pulling on the thick rope which was grinding on his Adam’s apple, burning the flesh as it moved along it. He could feel his bowels about to give in.
The silk stream below Harmony Bridge continued to flicker past just as it always did, splashing delicately off the rocks and weeds in its path as fish leapt playfully from it and birds in nearby trees chirped gaily, the natural world oblivious to the main spectacle on the bridge on this beautiful summer’s morn on the outskirts of the God-fearing town of Jericho, Tennessee. The domineering mountains and valleys which surrounded the town in some ways appeared to be cutting it off from the rest of civilisation, enclosing it for its own protection. Or perhaps they were shielding the rest of the world from Crazy Sam and the cynical darkness that ran within him, and, it must be said, from the rest of the town and its hypocrisy and secrets.
Sheriff Joshua, with his impressive frame, bushy dark hair and nicotine-stained moustache, and his deputies were in charge of the hanging, with the Reverend Thomas and many of the other townsfolk – those who had formed the lynch mob which had snatched Crazy Sam from his bed as he lay with a notorious lady of ill-repute – also in attendance. Old Doc Minnis was there, too, rotund, balding, as serious-looking as always, holding his trusty leather satchel of medical instruments in his right hand while puffing on his clay pipe held in the other. The Reverend had said a prayer as the baying crowd of onlookers waited excitedly with a frenzied blood-lust for the main event. One couldn’t really blame them, to be fair.
Sam had been a bad man. He’d killed and robbed many of their kith and kin over the years, the brains behind the robbing of several banks and small businesses with his gang of undesirables, a rancid cancer on the reputation of Jericho, one which was about to be cut out permanently. Always drunk, always involved in some fight or another, the residents were finally about to say farewell to the scum of the earth that was Crazy Sam once and for all.
After his prayer, Reverend Thomas asked Sam if he had any last words. “I’ll see every last one of you dirty, stinkin’ bastards in Hell!” came the reply.
The game was almost up for Samuel Ichabod Clemence, a man of Ulster-Scots stock, his people (good, decent hard-working folk, unlike the rotten apple he had become) heralding from County Antrim, his life spanning just twenty-five years, two and a half decades of malevolence and mayhem.
A song sparrow perched itself on Harmony Bridge and whistled a pleasant melody on this radiant, hot day, as the noose tightened around Crazy Sam’s neck for the final time and his mind slipped into darkness.
Michael awoke from a bad dream. He had been asleep on a double bed but his surroundings were unfamiliar, his memory fuzzy. As he looked around the room he found himself in, he realised it was a hotel room and a rather decadent one at that, quite possibly 5-star. He was dressed in a sharp black suit and tie which he had apparently fallen asleep in, although he couldn’t recall ever owning one like it, or – much more importantly – how he had come to be in this place and situation. Had he been to a funeral (which would account for the suit), gotten drunk and blacked out, he mused, but had no recollection of anything of the sort. In fact, he had very little recollection of anything at all, including his own name.
Michael stared around the room for several minutes, trying to make sense of what was going on around him. It was night time, he knew that at least, as a sliver of moonlight slipped through the curtains of the hotel room. Thirsty, he stumbled out of the silk-sheeted bed to the room’s adjoining bathroom and drank from the cold water tap until he was satisfied. He staggered back into the bedroom area and sat on the edge of the bed, pondering what to do next.
As he sat in a confused trance attempting to work out what exactly was going on – or who exactly he was – a couple of memories suddenly struck him: He had a daughter, a two-year-old named Lachelle! He wanted to see her again so badly. He also remembered the year: 2023. Wasn’t it?
Michael went to the bathroom again and this time ran the tap and threw water around his face. He was feeling a little fresher and decided he had to exit the hotel and get some help from somewhere – anywhere really.
When Michael left the hotel room, he found himself in a poorly lit corridor, the décor of which contrasted profoundly with the bedroom. It felt old, decrepit, damp and fusty, the brown and cream striped wallpaper adding to the feeling that the place hadn’t been decorated since the 1960s.
A foul smell hung in the air like a diseased, soiled blanket, stale and death-like. As Michael walked cautiously forward, past the doors of rooms with odd, runic symbols scraped recklessly onto them instead of numbers, he began to hear some commotion at the furthest end of the passageway. Faint at first, gradually becoming more audible, he realised it was a form of chanting by both male and female voices. Michael could not understand the words they were speaking, though, as they were in no language he had ever heard before – or could remember hearing. What language did he speak anyway? English, wasn’t it? The repeated chants were guttural, unnatural-sounding, almost hypnotising but becoming more and more clear, as Michael pressed on towards them.
Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus . . .
A semi-mesmerized Michael reached the door of the room where this drumming cacophony of sinister words was coming from. It was lying wide open, broken off from its hinges in part and covered in the runic scrapings.
Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est—
The chanting from the room’s occupants broke off as Michael looked inside, to be greeted by a sight of utter depravity and insanity, the stink from before only increasing tenfold. The walls were stained with what appeared to be fresh blood. The only object in the room, which lay in its centre, was a large king-sized bed with only a mattress on it, and on this was around two dozen naked bodies, lying randomly upon it and on top of each other. On closer inspection, as his eyes adjusted to the macabre horror in front of them and noticed several sudden movements, Michael realised that only about half of the bodies were dead and the rest – those that were squirming and slithering around the others – were alive and feasting on the body parts of the deceased, tearing at their flesh and bones in a frenzy, gorging on them, slurping their blood, like desperate addicts who had just stumbled upon a new fix after many months of sobriety.
When Michael screamed and winced in disgust, these horrible non-humans momentarily stopped what they were doing and looked up at him – but they had no eyes, just empty, black, bottomless sockets from most hellish of nightmares. They seemed to be pleased that he had walked in on them and stared at him (through him?) blankly, but also with a menacing, gleeful delight at the same time. Michael turned on his heels and ran directionlessly back down the corridor where he had just come from. He knew he had to get outside, despite not knowing where exactly outside was – or even who he was himself. As he ran and ran, the corridor in the hotel soon became another one just like it, and as he rounded that one it became another one almost exactly the same, and again and again and again. The hotel was a maze and Michael was its prisoner – corridors upon corridors upon corridors, scratched doors upon scratched doors upon seemingly never-ending scratched doors, the vile chantings of the wicked beings echoing and echoing all around:
Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus. Nūllus est deus . . .
Eventually, the chanting suddenly ceased and Michael could hear a knocking sound instead. The sound of rapping on glass, it appeared. As the banging noises grew louder, Michael rounded yet another corner of one of the corridors to now find himself in a lobby of sorts and the apparent entrance of this cursed hotel.
The lobby was bleak and desolate, a brown-carpeted reception area with an unpopulated check-in desk (who the fuck would want to check into this hell-hole anyway?!) and several worn-out sofas that looked like they had been transported directly from the mid-twentieth-century. Light was bleeding in from somewhere – daylight? – as Michael realised where the knocking was coming from. There was a young woman – blonde-haired, slim, wearing a torn blue jacket and jeans, aged in her early-to-mid-twenties perhaps – banging incessantly from the outside of the entrance to the hotel in a panicked state of disarray.
“Come quickly, you have to come right now!” she hollered at him through the glass.
Michael had no option but to trust the girl and bolted over to the double doors and attempted to pull them open. But they weren’t for budging, despite how much he pulled and struggled with them.
“They’re locked! They’re fucking locked! What the fuck is going on here?!”
The young woman calmed somewhat. “Step back a bit, get out of the way, old man!”
Michael did as he was told.
To Michael’s surprise, she removed a small revolver from inside of her jacket and fired three rapid shots at the door, splintering the glass everywhere before kicking it with all her might, resulting in the shards smashing and flying all around the ground before grabbing a stunned Michael by the arm and pulling him outside into the world that awaited him. “We have very little time left. You’ve been trapped in that place for much longer than you think. We have to move, and fast. I’ll explain everything once we get out of the city.”
As Michael exited the front area of the hotel, the heat and light from the sun above almost blinded him. And then it all came flooding back to him – his name, who he was, where he was from . . .
He instantly recognised his surroundings but there was something very off about them, too.
Belfast City Centre was a mess.
As Michael and his female companion walked through the debris of Royal Avenue – the crashed and long-abandoned cars and buses, the smashed-up, looted shops, the corpses in varying states of decay strewn everywhere, the plucky rats nibbling on what remained of the human body parts – he looked ahead at the remains of what was once the City Hall, now a collapsed-in, half burnt-out skeleton of a ruin, the once decadent statue of Queen Victoria toppled over, disregarded and forgotten about.
“What on earth has happened?” a dejected, forlorn Michael enquired.
“I’ll explain later. Everything’s fucked up. Everything,” replied his rescuer.
“No, wait.” Michael pulled the girl back. “Tell me now. I need to know,” he pleaded.
“Later, I promise you. It’s not safe here.” The girl freed herself from Michael’s grip and began to walk away.
“Wait a minute, who are you? Why did you pull me out of there? What’s your name?”
The girl turned around and smiled at Michael.
“Don’t you recognise these eyes?”
“Why should I?”
“Because they’re your eyes . . . Dad!”
Another pause. Another smile from the girl. A moment of shock and then confused realisation for Michael.
The girl broke Michael’s stunned silence.
“Welcome to Hell, Daddy-o. Your granddaughter Margot is just dying to meet you!”
As a jet-black crow swooped down from the burning sky above and landed on Queen Victoria’s head, Lachelle took her father by the hand and together they walked by what was left of Belfast City Hall and through the barren wasteland towards their future.
Sheriff Joshua and his deputies cut Crazy Sam down from the noose. The dead body dropped onto the wooden beams of the bridge with a heavy thud that startled the song sparrow and rudely interrupted its song.
Old Doc Minnis examined Sam’s remains and declared him dead.
A solemn Reverend Thomas asked God to have mercy on the soul of Samuel Ichabod Clemence and then invited the townsfolk who had attended the hanging back to the church for refreshments which his wife had prepared.
As the sombre residents of Jericho made their way back into town, below their feet on Harmony Bridge, the silk stream continued to flicker and the fish continued to leap playfully.
The song sparrow, having now seen enough, took to the skies contentedly, sweeping up into those domineering mountains and valleys of Tennessee for a new adventure.
It was a beautiful summer’s morn.