Horla Flash Fiction (March 2021)




EVERYBODY knows. I mean we don’t know what exactly but we know something. Not that we actually know something but we know enough. We know to find spaces just our own and to not give voice to the whispers and screams trying to work their way out of us. At least I think we do, maybe it’s just a few of us. Though it can’t be. It, or they, are everywhere. And I cannot stop thinking about them.

The more you dwell on those normally suppressed thoughts the more disconcerting a happy smiling face seems.

The woman behind the counter seems genuinely happy, trying to ask me what I’ve been working on or if it’s just getting supplies for my students that keeps bringing me in. I say I’m just stocking up and don’t have any projects on the go right now. She knows me by this point. At least she knows I’m an art teacher. But still tell people I’m an artist. I buy the supplies as quickly as possible paying in cash. If I tell her I’m painting something specific and it does not materialise, which it wouldn’t, that might seem suspicious and I can’t draw attention right now. I turn my back on her happy smiling face glad to be rid of it for the third time this week, and walk home.

I look at the people I’m walking by. Everyone doing something to keep occupied, looking at phones, listening to music or just plain looking down at the ground. Not talking though, very few people talking. I’m not sure exactly what age people learn to keep themselves to themselves in public, and private. Early teens maybe. In my case after one too many unexpected violent outbursts from a usually gentle father. All for asking the wrong kind of questions or after recounting the imagery of a nightmare that hit too close to the unspoken.

I make it home clutching my new paints and brushes. I lock my front door behind me, draw the curtains closed and head right for my studio. The studio is a box room with black out curtains and few lights accompanied by two full bottles of rum in the corner. There is also a standing easel holding a canvas with a self-portrait painted onto it, an old cupboard with paints and brushes strewn on and in it, and a few splashes and splodges everywhere, mainly greens with the odd fleck of suspicious looking red. I pour out my new items on the cupboard next to the rest. I take off my jacket and fling it into the corner of the room covering the rum, not caring that it would inevitably invite ruination by paint. I take a deep breath and cast my eyes over the self-portrait.

My same old face, the same old background. The same old picture. I squeeze out several of the new paints onto a large bathroom tile, pick up a new brush and begin to deface my self-portrait. I start with a large childlike protrusion coming out from my head and shape it into an in-human claw, green and rotting. I stared at it. I looked away for a while then stared at it again. I pick up my jacket, toss it into another corner and retrieved one of the rum bottles. After few well practised slugs of the rough alcohol I turn back to the painting, still defaced with a crude rotten appendage.

Holding the bottle, I continued the infecting of my image. I add extra fingers to each of my hands in an obviously rushed child-like style and put in more rot and pus to the other worldly claw forcing its way from my brain. Misshapen and boldly coloured eyes appear in every background shadow and wounds spring into life on my body as I charge through the defacing.

The rum from the first bottle was gone. I could barely see what I have done to my old familiar painting through the drunken haze. But I could make out the green claw and red blood on my character. Looking at this through drunken eyes reminds me of my half-remembered nightmares, and with this thought I let myself pass out drunk at the feet of my easel.

I wake the next morning. I keep my eyes closed and focuse on the hangover. The sweet distracting hang-over. Pain in my head and the turmoil in my empty stomach anchor me. I lay there eyes locked shut as long as I can resist. I think about the claw in my painting, I remember the colours I used and the angle it burst from my head, I tried to recall exactly where I had added the wounds and what shaped eyes I painted in. Eventually, I open my own eyes. I gaze at the legs on the easel for a while then slowly follow them up. I am sick on myself.

It is just alcohol, stomach acid and bile. It poures lazy from my mouth barely making me wretch. As the stench of my own insides hit me and a combination of rum and stomach acid ooze down my front I lock eyes with my painted doppelgänger. Pristine as always. Untroubled and wound free he looks back at me, his smug gaze sans claw, pus or rot. I get to my feet, pick up the second bottle of rum and headed to the shower, to ready myself for another day.



David R.L. Campbell describes himself as ‘a new, if not young, writer’ who lives in the North of England, working as a teacher and raising a family with his partner. He’s had a career dedicated to storytelling in various forms, working in TV, film and the video games industry. He now teaches English to secondary school students.  

Title photo credit – Mike Petrucci via Unsplash

Horla standard disclaimer – image has no direct connection with the fiction