Horla Fiction (May 2020)

 

IN THE HOUSE OF THE ARTIST

by CALLUM NORMAN

JAMES led Oliver and me to a large door, through which there was a long corridor, along which there were many rooms. At the bottom of the corridor there were two rooms opposite one another, one of which, James informed us, was a studio, the other of which was a bedroom. I’d known that the house was much larger than the spaces that I’d been shown to, but I didn’t realise how much larger it was until that moment. The idea of finally meeting Uncle Regis electrified my entire body with terrible nerves. I had an image of a decrepit old man who would snap at everything that anybody said.

James entered the studio as a matter of routine, but Oliver and I followed awkwardly. The first thing that I noticed about the room was the fact that there were canvasses hung all around the walls: they were all black with thin gold lines drizzled over them. It was extraordinary, because Uncle Regis had made his reputation through semi-abstract still lifes. As far as I was aware, the general public had never seen these frightfully dazzling black and gold creations. I was impressed by them. In fact, as far as I was concerned, those black and gold creations were as good, if not better, than anything else that Uncle Regis had ever produced.

My attention soon shifted away from Uncle Regis’s nocturnal paintings to Uncle Regis himself. He was sat against a wall with his legs stretched out. He eyes were wild and red and his skin was as pale as death. He looked up at us, though it didn’t seem as though he’d seen us at all: he seemed to be looking straight through us. James went and knelt down beside Regis, but Regis paid no attention to him. Regis looked at me when he finally spoke:

“I have nothing left to offer this world.”

James turned and shot me a meaningful look. Somehow, I knew what he meant right away: I turned and told Oliver that we’d visit Uncle Regis another time. As Oliver and I hurried to the kitchen, I couldn’t escape the feeling that something terrible was right behind us. For a long time, a horrible silence hung between Oliver and me. It was clear from Oliver’s nervy behaviour that he had been traumatised. I didn’t know what to say to him. Eventually, I offered to make Oliver a hot chocolate. He said that he didn’t want one, but I made one for each of us anyway. It was only when we were slurping on our drinks that we began to discuss what we had just experienced.

“Do you think Uncle Regis will be okay?” Oliver asked.

“Of course he will.”

I didn’t really believe that though.

James came into the room before we could really get into what had just happened.

“I’m really sorry about that. Honestly, he doesn’t normally stay up drinking like that. I’ll go and check that he’s okay before we go up there next time,” James offered.

 

***

 

That evening, just as James had left Oliver and me to go and see Uncle Regis, there was a loud knock on the front door. I thought about going to get James, but I knew that he was likely to be at the other end of the house by that time. I moved towards the front door with all the confidence that I could muster, which wasn’t that much. I opened the door to find a little old man, who had short grey hair and incredibly deep wrinkles.

“I’m here to see Regis,” the man said.

“Oh… I’ll just go and tell James that you’re here.”

“There’s no need. I know where I’m going.”

I stood aside, letting the man pass into the house. I took it as an eccentricity as opposed to anything that might have been more sinister. I remember thinking that there could be no harm in a little old man. Still, I followed the man upstairs. At one point, on the stairs, the man turned around and glared at me coldly; I awkwardly averted my eyes. First, the man went into the studio that James and Oliver had been frequenting daily. Of course, nobody was in there at that time. Then, as he approached the door that led to the other studio, James came out of that door.

“What the hell are you doing in here?” James asked the man.

“It’s none of your business.”

“The last thing that anyone needs in this house is you,” James bellowed.

“You’ve got no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Get out or I’ll call the police.”

“And what will you tell them? Regis called me and asked me to come over. It’s his house, not yours. I’ll only leave when he tells me to.”

“You’re nothing but filth!” James yelled with a look of absolute revulsion.

“Regis probably called me because he’s sick of being smothered by your mediocrity.”

“Get out now, or else I’ll throw you down those stairs.”

The man sneered at James, then he turned to leave. James followed the man out; I followed James. Not a word was spoken. Getting outside seemed to take forever. As soon as the man got outside, he didn’t turn around and he didn’t utter a word: he just slowly faded away into the distance. He melted into the black horizon.

“I’m sorry about that. I didn’t invite him in: he just passed by me.”

“Don’t worry. I know what he’s like. Come with me.”

The first thing that James did upon reentering the house was to lock the door, which was something that he wouldn’t normally do until just before he was ready to go to bed. James led me upstairs, into the studio that James and Oliver had been using. There were several still lifes scattered around the room. James took a red apple from a bowl on a coffee table, and he began to munch on it. He offered one to me, but I declined it.

“That was Horace, Regis’s ex-assistant. Have you ever heard anything said about him?”

“No. No one’s ever mentioned him.”

“That doesn’t surprise me. Horace was only here for two years. During his final six months, I worked alongside him. I’ve been here for ten years since Horace left.”

“Why did you want him to leave just now?”

“It’s a long story. Or should I say, it’s a lot of stories. Horace might think that he’s a genius, but the truth is, he’s a leech.”

“Did he want Uncle Regis’s money?”

“If only that was all that it was. Horace never really saw Regis as a human being.”

“What do you mean?”

“Horace sniffed out a chance to be a part of art history. It might seem strange to you, because Regis is your uncle, but being Regis’s assistant is a huge honour, and it would be to a lot of people out there. Regis has his eccentricities and his problems, like many artists have had in the past. Vincent van Gogh, for example, was mentally unwell for much of his life. Any sane person would have wanted him to be well again. Do you see what I’m getting at?”

“Did Horace make Uncle Regis unwell?”

“Your uncle has suffered from all sorts of problems during his lifetime. I’m not sure how much you know. Regis’s late wife, your Auntie Frances, got Regis to a point where he wouldn’t even touch alcohol. Then, after her death, Horace came on to the scene, and we’re still dealing with the consequences of it now. It’s not just that he turned Regis back on to all kinds of things: he did other bad things as well, but I don’t want to talk about that.”

“So Horace was just after fame?”

“Exactly. In the end, with the help of several other people, I convinced Regis to get rid of Horace. It wasn’t easy, because Horace got under Regis’s skin, but we got rid of him eventually. Anyway, I’m only telling you this because I think you deserve to know what happened just now. I would never behave like that towards somebody for no reason. If anybody deserved it, Horace did.”

 

***

 

It had been a distressing day, so it was no surprise that my sleep was troubled that night. In reality, the curtains in the room that Oliver and I shared had been shut. In my dreams, they hadn’t, so I turned to see Horace’s morose face glaring down at me through the window. I only became aware that my late Auntie Frances was in the room when her voice sounded from the other end of it, near to the door: “If you had shut the curtains, then none of this would have happened!”

I woke up with a violent jolt. Oliver, who was in the single bed on the other side of the room, was watching me. As soon as he saw that I was looking back at him, with terror still in my eyes, he turned away, then he put his head under his covers. He began to sob. I asked him what was wrong; he didn’t answer me. I asked him again, to no avail. I wanted to help him, but I didn’t know what to say to him.

I knocked on James’s door five times, with increasing urgency each time. When he didn’t answer, which seemed uncharacteristic, I decided to search other areas in and around the house where he might have been. I looked for James in the kitchen, then in the living room, then in the garden (James had started smoking outside more often since Oliver and I had arrived), but I couldn’t find him anywhere. I knocked on his door again, to no avail. Then I heard some movement coming from the bottom of the corridor, where Uncle Regis’s studio was. I assumed that James was with Uncle Regis.

Every inch of me wanted to go back to bed. The idea of approaching Uncle Regis’s studio at that time of night scared me. I didn’t think that Uncle Regis was capable of harming anybody, but I also didn’t want to witness any disturbing behaviour at that evil hour. However, the idea of leaving Oliver to weep the whole night through was unbearable to me. At that moment, Oliver and I needed James more than we ever had done before.

When I knocked on the door to the studio, no one answered, but I could hear movement from within. It didn’t make sense because, in my mind, James had to be in that studio. I slowly opened the door. Straight away, I realised that the black and gold canvasses had been taken down. There was a single frame on the wall, straight in front of me, inside which there was what I thought was an imitation of a human face. I didn’t even consider the idea that it could have been real, until I stepped into the room: I turned to see Horace stood over Uncle Regis’s body, which was lifeless on the floor. Uncle Regis’s face had been stripped off, revealing a terrifying, raw new face within.

“Isn’t it something?” Horace asked, indicating my uncle’s severed skin.

 

 

***

Callum Norman is a short story writer from Doncaster, England. He recently completed a master’s degree in English Literature at The University Of Sheffield. His fiction has appeared in The Fiction PoolStorgyNymphs and Terror House Magazine.

Title photo credit. Photo by Joseph Morris on Unsplash

Horla standard disclaimer. The photograph has no direct connection with the content of the fiction above.