Published in Issue 2 of Visionary Tongue, Winter 1995.
I. Carcosa, Nest of Ghouls – Carcosa was a darkened labyrinth of crumbling colonnades, cracked wet tiles underfoot, and cascades of slime down ancient walls. In the abandoned godowns by the river, strange shapes slithered and gibbered in half-dark. The dead crowded howling in the graveyards by the river, cold white faces turned to the darkness of the slow water. The living sat in the dark towers, using drugs and slow loving, anything to keep out the all-pervasive death-in-life of Carcosa.
That summer, Carcosa was a hot sweaty maze under an aching blue sky, the meat-and-metal stink of the dead town climbing up the staircases. People crowded the shadows and sat on vine-wreathed balconies. The days were hot, and heavy with the buzz of flying creatures. Down by the river, funeral pyres burnt day and night, consuming the city’s ever-increasing dead.
Danny Salom and Marceline Legree had been living on the twelfth floor of an ancient apartment block for a month now. Danny was tall, dangerously thin, and wiry. He tried to make a living as a painter. He had ridden with the Bad Boys once, but then the Incident had happened, and he no longer liked even to go out at night.
Marceline was small, brown-haired, and dark-eyed, a taut young woman whose poetry rang like angels and demons together. She had tried suicide seventeen times and now seemed to attempt it desultorily, when she wanted to amuse herself. Carcosa attracted suicides like Paris called lovers, and New Orleans lured magicians. Marceline’s suicide attempts were now no more than high-spirited pranks: jumping off the city walls or into the river, or turning on the gas and lighting a match. In a city where a third of the population suicided every year, Marceline and Danny surfed on the death ambience.
At twenty-four years old, both Danny and Marceline were growing old for the death games of the young. Most of their friends had killed themselves off; and some of them, whose bodies were not found and burnt in time, became ghouls, living on the lush pickings of the vast ornamental graveyards that surrounded the city of Carcosa. A handful became the more fearsome night-gaunts, which impatient of waiting for the dead, would swoop from the shadows on the unsuspecting living and tear out a throat. It was said that any of the dhole-riding Bad Boys who sometimes made raids on the city would become nightgaunts if they died in action. Danny hadn’t died, but his friends had; and what he had seen was in some ways worse than mere death.
One morning at sunrise, Danny set up his easel at the end of Mahon Street and looked down the steep, tiled street at the river. His view covered the corner of the Sant Pau cemetery; and as he looked, he caught sight of a white figure perched on one of the tombstones, caught in the act of chewing on something nameless. The ghoul looked up and for a long, chill moment, it stared right into Danny’s eyes. Danny swallowed hard; was that recognition> in its dead eyes? Did it know who he was, what savage thing he had done, and what sicker vengeance he had witnessed?
Then both painter and dead thing looked away, and Danny picked up his brush and began feverishly to paint. He painted the ornamental tomb, its cross tilted at an angle, the grey stone sepulchre tilted into the soil; and he painted the thing that crouched atop it, chewing. As Danny painted, a second creature clambered onto the tomb and began grabbing at the lump of flesh the first ghoul held. Eventually it took a bite from the lump, and turned round to present its rear. The two ghouls crouched quivering, pressed against one another, for several seconds before Danny realised they were fucking. He stopped painting and watched, fascinated. What feeling would a ghoul have while it fucked? That cold flesh would not be welcoming as a living person, and there could be no biological function; but the sex reflex must still be there. The ghouls went at it feverishly, slavering from long teeth. Danny started to paint again.
Danny went home in the late morning, canvas under his arm, paints and brushes in his satchel. The people in the streets were subdued, and Danny kept his gaze fixed on the roadway. At home he showed Marceline what he had drawn: the white creature perched on the tomb, and the two copulating mindlessly.
‘Like dogs,’ Marceline said. ‘Just like a pair of dogs screwing in the sun.’ She was wearing a white shift this day, her arms bare, her hair loose. ‘Do you think they remember? What it was to love?’
‘They aren’t human any more,’ Danny said. Marceline tightened her grip. For someone so focused on death she was fiercely jealous of life.
‘But do they remember?’ Marceline insisted, her Levantine accent becoming stronger as her emotions took more of a hold on her.
‘You’d have to ask them,’ Danny said; ‘And I doubt if they would be able to tell you. As you said, Marceline; they are like dogs. Screwing in the sun.’
Day after day, and night after night, the dead became more pervasive. Ghouls hung around in doorways; white shapes glimpsed at the edge of vision down by the river crowded into a single vast shade. A sickly smell of burning flesh from the pyres wafted over the city.
In the old Jardins de Sant Ferran, Danny and Marceline shared a bottle of rough red wine with Azrael Shah, a shapeless figure of dubious sexuality who lived in the gardens. Azrael could empty half a litre bottle in a single gulp, taking it all down into some improbable part of his body, so his friends kept a close watch on how much they passed his way. The gardens had once been formal and correct, carved arches draped with climbing vines, ornamental urns and tiled pathways; but now the Jardins de Sant Ferran had fallen into a lush degeneracy, swarming with birds and animals and wayward plant growth that cascaded down to the river’s edge.
‘I’d keep in well with the dead,’ Azrael said when Danny told him about the ghouls fucking, and the way the first one had stared at him. ‘They know a lot, dear. Never turn my back on ‘em, I don’t. Not just ‘cos I don’t trust ‘em, but ‘cos they can be useful.’ Azrael patted his hand. ‘Remember that, sweet thing.’
II. The God who Has No Name – The four arcane symbols painted on the doorway of the Temple of Askileth, whence the Sacred Scarab came at the dawn of time, may be interpreted as meaning ‘The Way of Beneficent Peace’; or ‘The Queen Has Left the Tomb’; or ‘The Farmer’s Cow is Sick’, though those mooting the last meaning are clubbed with stones before they can spread their treason. At the height of Carcosa’s forgotten civilisation, the townsfolk sacrificed animals to the God who Has No Name (and whose invocation is answered with, ‘May he be praised, whoever he is’); few could forget the screams of crucified goats as the butcher’s axe swung down and lopped the goat’s head off. The God who Has No Name is not interested in meat, but in blood, and in death. He is depicted with a bloated belly and an open maw rimmed with sharp teeth. He sits on a mound of skulls. Skulls adorn him as a necklace, and his body is slimed with blood.
Nowadays ghouls meep around the doorway of the Temple of Askileth; though even the bolder ones dare not enter, Luther Maximilianus is Pope to the creatures of the night. He lives in a secluded room at the back of the Temple of Askileth. He is a lean, cadaverous man, whom some mistake for one of the ghouls to whom he ministers; years of living among the living dead have turned him into the replica of one of them.
Out of the setting sun, from beneath the crumbling arches that mark the edge of the city, come the Bad Boys. Astride strange beasts, whose pallid necks twist and turn and whose blind questing snouts prod the air for scents, they ride, four of them, up the street to the Temple of Askileth. A white creature gibbers to them from beside the Temple’s doorway, and one of the Bad Boys aims at it with his crossbow. He fires, and the ghoul is pinned to the wall, kicking and meeping feebly, leaking thin pink blood. Other ghouls flee up the street like sheep before a sheepdog.
The Bad Boys are back in town.
They climb off their beasts and lope into the Temple. They pass by the hideous statue of the God who Has No Name, sneering as they go. The stink of blood cheers them rather than sickening; thus they are immune to the effects of the God’s excesses.
They are also immune to the aura surrounding Luther Maximilianus. The Pope comes bustling out of his sacristy, hands sticky with goats’ blood, face white with the pallor of long years spent indoors. He raises his hands and prepares to greet the travellers; but their leader, Yukio Narvaez, raises his crossbow and shoots the old man in the chest. Luther smiles benevolently.
‘So kind,’ he says, falling to his knees, blood bubbling from around the metre-long shaft. He falls sideways and dies, glubbering horribly, his hand outreached and spasming towards the statue of the God who Has No Name. The Bad Boys grin and turn to go.
Behind them, where there had been the open chancel of the Temple, stands something bloated and blood-streaked, taller than any of them, grinning down at them with a mouthful of sharp teeth. It is so close the boys can hear the skulls of its necklace chinking together, and droplets of blood splashing onto the chill stone of the chancel. And it stinks, of blood and shit and ancient flesh.
Yukio Narvaez’s bladder spasms and he wets himself. The God who Has No Name grins wider and extends a limb, half-arm and half-tentacle, to seize the boy. It wrenches his head off like a peasant killing a chicken. Then it turns its attention to the others, scooping them up and tearing them apart. Bones crack and splinter; flesh tears like wet paper. When it has eaten all three victims, it burps massively, farts and slithers back to its pedestal, where it becomes, once more, a statue.
The only survivor watches in chill horror from behind a pillar. Walking in the shadow at the edge of the Temple, Danny Salom slips out of the building, leaps onto his blind beast, and gallops into town. Behind him, the other, abandoned dholes whine, and the ghouls crowd round, pointing and cackling. Somewhere in what remains of their minds, the ghouls understand what has happened, and remember what they have seen. As he rides, Danny is aware of their rotting eyes watching him.
III. The Memories of the Dead – ‘The dead have long memories,’ Danny Salom said to Marceline, in the silence of the night. He could not sleep, remembering that day so long ago and the stink of the creature that somehow, despite all logic, came alive in that temple. Although she was sleeping, he told her the story, leaving out nothing, not even the delighted look on the old man’s face when he was dying.
‘Why did he look so pleased?’ Danny asked. ‘Because he knew what our punishment would be? That must be it.’
‘Must be,’ Marceline murmured. Danny laid down and put his arms around her, whether to protect her or so that she could protect him, he couldn’t have said.
When he woke up she was gone. He pushed himself up from the bed, and called her name twice. When there was no answer he walked through into the bathroom, but she was not in there; nor was she in the tiny kitchen, and there was no sign of her having brewed her habitual first-thing-in-the-morning pot of coffee. There was no note on the table, nothing saying where she’d gone. Danny shoved the streetside window open and looked down into the narrow street. He couldn’t see her there. She was gone.
‘Oh gods,’ he murmured. ‘She’s making another attempt. Why, dear heart?’
He went back into the bedroom, pulled on his clothes and street shoes, and went out.
In the street he passed a café owner setting out his tables. He took the man’s elbow in his hand and asked,
‘Have you seen a woman passing by?’
The café owner looked pityingly at him.
‘Many women,’ he said, shrugging, and turned away. Danny walked on, wondering where she might have gone. To the river, he guessed; she would have gone down to the river. Maybe Azrael would know. So he headed for the Jardins de Sant Ferran, looking for the old fellow there.
Azrael was sitting on his customary bench, arms outstretched along the seatback, face uptilted to the dawn sun. Danny came and sat beside him like a predatory bird.
‘Have you seen her?’ he asked. ‘Marceline?’
‘No,’ Azrael said, languidly, then registering the urgency in Danny’s voice, turned to face him. ‘I will help you look. We will search along the river. Sometimes they go there.’ Danny didn’t ask who went there, but it was clear: they went there to die, among the drifting stink of the pyres.
When they reached the Terrace, an area of cracked flagstones above the river, Danny had a sudden hot flush of foreboding. He ran across the Terrace like a man possessed; though he did not want to see what he knew he would see, he could not keep away from it. At the far side, where the balustrade overhung the river, he looked over. A pale figure lay in the water several metres below, face down, but her floating hair and the shape of her body told Danny what he needed to know. She was wearing the primrose-coloured dress that she liked to wear when she was writing poetry; she claimed it helped her imagination.
‘Help me carry her up,’ he said, his voice thick and heavy. He and Azrael descended the narrow weed-choked stone steps, almost slipping off several times. At the bottom he crouched, and reached out for her. His warm hands touched her cold arms and he was suddenly revolted, bile rising in his throat. But he got a hold on her arms and pulled her towards him, all the time saying, ‘Why, dear heart?’ under his breath like a mantra. In the end Marceline’s body lay against the steps. He turned her over. Her face was not calm in death; her mouth was open, one eye was closed, and there was a small fish clinging to her cheek. Danny pulled the fish off and squeezed it until it popped and fish guts spewed over his hand.
Together he and Azrael Shah pulled the dead woman out of the water and onto the bottom step. Danny pushed at Marceline’s chest, forcing water out of her mouth, but all efforts to bring her back to life failed. Azrael put a hand on his shoulder.
‘She’s dead, Danny,’ he said. Danny looked up at his friend’s face and saw a kindness he would never have expected. Together they carried Marceline up the stairs.
‘I want to bury her,’ Danny said, ‘where none of those creatures will get at her.’
‘The body,’ Azrael said impassively, ‘must be burnt.’
They were sitting in the gardens again. Marceline’s body lay a hundred metres away, in a dark room in the Temple of the Winds, an illnamed place of weird smells and unholy pictures. Azrael and Danny were drinking wine and this time Danny was drinking faster.
‘Never,’ Danny said. ‘I shall not burn her. Neither, my friend, shall you.’
‘Very well,’ Azrael said. ‘But she may turn. Had you thought of that?’
‘Gods, no.’ It wasn’t true: he had thought of it, but tried to send the thought back whence it came. There could be no similarity between his warm, loving Marceline and those pallid horrors that lived in the graveyard. ‘We have to bury her, Azrael. Bury her deep and say prayers over her. Bury her and keep her buried. I want to remember what she was, not live with the fear she might … turn.’
‘Why do you think she did it?’ Azrael asked, gently.
‘I don’t know. Suicide is infectious around here. If you live in this city you have to expect it, like flies and religion. But Marceline … I know she’d tried, many times, but I thought it was over. And it was just after I told her …’
‘Told her what?’
‘A few years ago,’ he said, ‘I ran with the Bad Boys. We killed the priest of the God who Has No Name.’
‘May he be praised,’ Azrael said in a shaky voice, ‘whoever he is.’
‘And then,’ Danny went on, ‘the God … you won’t believe this, but the God came to life and killed my friends. Killed and ate them, Azrael; and I alone survived to tell the tale. I think this is the punishment I missed that time.’
Azrael said, ‘no, no,’ but it was plain from the look on his face that he thought that it might be true. Danny felt as though that dark day had come to life yet again. He hadn’t even suspected that Azrael might be a follower of the God. He certainly didn’t seem the type to cut animals’ throats, or to slash his arms and legs to feed the God on his own blood; but you could never tell, not in Carcosa where suicides hung at street corners some mornings like the sides of ripening meat in the butchers’ market.
‘Where can I bury her, Azrael?’ he asked. ‘Where will the ghouls not get to her?’
‘There is only one place,’ Azrael Shah said. ‘Where even they do not dare enter unbidden.’
© 1996 Chris Amies