HORLA FICTION (March 2019)



by Sally O’Reilly

HE was a stout man, round-backed, bent over the papers on his office desk. A table lamp threw a shadow on the wall behind him.

It was dusk.

Outside he could hear the grating gears of the evening traffic, as cars and works vans laboured up the hill. The rest of the old laundry-shed was in semi-darkness.

Behind him, the secretary’s empty desk marked the limit of the lamp-span. A typewriter sat squarely on its rubber mat, the ranked keys a glitter of reflected light.  A pile of invoices was stacked next to the machine, ready to be sent out on Monday morning.  

His dog, Jill, made a yawning sound as she stretched herself out underneath his chair. She was a hysterical creature. All his life, he had put his faith in cross-breeds, and he would never buy another pedigree again. A breath of wind would panic her, so she would run in mad zig-zags, chasing her own fear. A sudden noise would have her snarling round at empty air.

Now, she was grumbling to herself, restless and liverish, wanting to get out of the old, converted workhouse and out into the autumn night. But she was his dog, not his wife. He had things to do, and she would have to wait.

It was five years since Albert Gaunt had been elected to the town council, and this year, if he was lucky enough, and clever enough, he might be Mayor. 

It was all a matter of ground work.  Who was for him, and who was against him.  Those who were ‘for’ he could discount for the time being.  It was his opponents that he needed to deal with. And like councillors everywhere, they were motivated only periodically by the common good. They were business men, in the main, and it was a delicate matter, working out who would be for what, and why, and how he could appeal to their self interest.  Albert couldn’t be all things to men, and nor would he want to be. His aim was to be sufficiently useful to a sufficient number. 

He was perusing the treasurer’s report of the local plumbing magnate, Harry Beasley, when he heard it. A tearing, grinding noise, like an iceberg ripping into the side of an ocean liner.  Jill, ever alert to the alarming and the uncanny, ran headlong out of the room, yapping frenziedly, and skittered up the staircase to the upper floor, where the girls’ dormitory used to be.  Albert used it for storage now. His business was office supplies. Where once young unmarried girls had slept in iron bedsteads, he now kept cardboard boxes full of carbon paper and ink pots and HB pencils.  He paused for a second, looking upwards at the ceiling. She was surely a most skittish creature.

‘Jill!’ he called. ‘Jill, come back here!’

The delivery boys complained about the upstairs room sometimes. Timmy Ellis, who would try anything for an easy life, refused to go in there at all.  Albert, being rational, and solid, and a man who wore the same braces his father wore, had never heard such nonsense.  Never heard such…

There it was again, only this time Jill was not so much barking as screaming. Almost a human sound. He could fancy there were words inside that noise, just as he used to imagine that clouds had faces when he was a boy.  He pushed his chair back and hurried from the room. When he reached the staircase, he climbed it two steps at a time.

The old dormitory was dark. He flicked at the light-switch, and the single bulb in the centre of the room came on. Boxes were piled everywhere, in tidy cardboard columns.  Halfway across the room was an iron divider, like a great sliding door, which split the room into two. 

Rust had welded it into one place so it was wedged half open, and his boys would squeeze through the gap to put boxes on the other side. 

(Cont. next column)

Now he noticed two things at once. Jill had stopped barking and the room was silent. And the iron doors, which were always wedged open, and which he and the delivery boys had failed to move, even when they set their joint weight to the job, was now closed shut.

He went over.  ‘Jill?’ he called.  ‘Jill?  Are you in there?’

As if she could answer him. He pressed his ear to the cold iron. He felt something, couldn’t name it at first. Then a word came. ‘Dread.’ The light seemed thin and sickly. Darkness would have been more wholesome.


There was a sound, a scratching, scrambling sound. He put his shoulder against one of the doors and tried to force it open with all his might. It was immobile, unyielding.

He felt the sweat breaking out on his back, as a single, narrow, scream went up from the other side of the door.  This time he really did not know if it was a human, or canine. He must go – he would get the boys, fetch a crow bar, release the dog. This was most upsetting, most irregular. Perhaps he should find new premises after all. He had held out long enough.

He turned to leave.  There was a figure standing between him and the door to the staircase. A woman, with her back to him.  She was dressed in black, her head bent, a shawl around her shoulders.

‘Miss?’ he said. ‘May I…Can I help you, miss?’

She was completely still. There was something – what was it?  He felt a chill, his own fear, no doubt.  Was it an odour? He thought of the daily he had once employed, the peculiar smell of fish she used to carry with her. They’d asked her to leave and she wept and raged.

He took a step nearer. ‘I have to tell you, this is private property,’ he began.  But he couldn’t go on.  It was not so much an odour as a sensation. And it wasn’t fear. It was…

She turned to face him.

But there was no face.

And later they would ask – What did she look like?

His hands would clench and unclench. His mouth would open and he would try to form the words.

A blank space. That is what he had seen.

But he could not have done so.

His mouth was a cavity fenced with crooked teeth.

What could it say?

A room might be a cavity, even when piled with boxes.

A face is flesh and bone.

‘Miss?’ he said again, and she held out something to him.

It was a parcel, made from lace and linen.

Was it a parcel? Lace and linen, scarlet. A bundle, dripping blood.

There was a face this time, an infant’s face.

The screaming started again.   

And later, they would ask him – What did it sound like, exactly?

Perhaps they hadn’t noticed the way his hands were clenching and his eyes searched the corner of the room, as if his lost dog might be sitting there. He was a solid sort of man, a rational man, the kind who gave a straight answer.

Sally O’Reilly has written three novels and one nonfiction guide: The Best Possible Taste and You Spin Me Round, (Penguin, 2004, 2007); Dark Aemilia (Myriad/Picador US, 2014) and How to Be a Writer: the definitive guide to getting published and making a living from writing (Piatkus, 2011). Her stories have been published in South Africa, Australia and the UK and she was shortlisted for the Ian St James and Cosmopolitan short story awards and the Historical Novel Society New Novel prize. Sally has a creative writing MA and PhD from Brunel University and is a lecturer at the Open University.

Sally O’Reilly’s blog can be found here: how2beawriter.blogspot.com

She’s on Twitter here:  @sallyoreilly