HORLA FICTION (April 2019)



by Paul Murgatroyd

SEBASTIAN Tinker was wondering where the blazes all the whores had gone. It wasn’t midnight yet, and he couldn’t see a single one in Soho Square. Something must have frightened them off. Some gang of villains? Another Ripper scare? Selfish bloody sluts! He had dined egregiously well with dear friends at the Mont Blanc, had imbibed copious amounts of a capital claret and a heavenly hock, had impressed the entire company with his wit and erudition, and now he wanted a wagtail to tup and mine. Where the devil were the bitches? He pouted, and tapped his ebony walking cane on the pavement, like a peevish woodpecker.

As the diminutive dandy stamped off into Sutton Street, he caught sight of a pathetic haggard figure about a hundred yards ahead of him. When he reached her, she rasped in a cockney accent: ‘You looks like a real gent; fancy a nice time, duckie?’

He inspected her. He didn’t favour redheads (such a vulgar colour) and, oh my dear, her face was a positive riot of freckles and pockmarks, and lined like a thrice-ploughed cornfield. But he could see through a rip in her blouse a damned fine pair of diddeys. He drawled: ‘Aahm, actually I’m used to a better class of dollymop. But you’ll have to do, I suppose. Follow me.’ Then he strode off to his rooms nearby, knowing the common little baggage would trail along behind him.

Indoors, he lit candles, ordered her up on the chaise longue, naked, and took her quickly. That scratched that itch. Now for the real point of the encounter.

Sebastian Tinker was a Poe-faced, Wilde-eyed author who prided himself on his delectably decadent stories of perversity and bizarrerie, embellished by Styx-black irony and structural intricacy. When he’d completed a few more, he would publish them in a collection entitled Cruel Tales. However, recently he’d run out of inspiration, so he’d been picking up prostitutes, getting them drunk and milking them for their stories in the hope of acquiring useful material. He hadn’t got anything worthwhile yet. But somehow, as soon as he saw her, he’d felt sure that his luck would change with this one, that he’d get something singular and grotesque from her.

He lit an opium-tinged cigarette, without offering one to her, and inhaled luxuriously. He looked around the room, immensely pleased with his possessions and himself. His gaze moved from his beloved books to the statuette of a sinister smiling Sphinx and then lingered on the delicate serenade of a snowy landscape by Sisley. Presently he got up, smoothed back his long black locks from their central parting and donned a purple dressing gown. When his companion went to put her clothes back on, he snapped: ‘No, don’t cover up. The dug-display is included in the price…Aahm, I’ll pay you now, if you like. But you’ll have to beg for it…Go on, back on your haunches, up with your paws and beg, like the dirty little bitch you are. Otherwise no money.’

When she hesitated, he reached over to his green knee breeches, took out a few coins and jingled them in his hand. Red-faced and with downcast eyes, she slowly settled back on her lean buttocks and raised her hands. After several seconds, when her arms were sagging and her hands began to tremble slightly, he said: ‘Good doggy. Now pant! Go on!’ She stiffened and frowned. But then she extended her tongue and breathed out heavily a few times.

He sniggered, tossed the coins to her and murmured: ‘Right, my poppet, time to smother a parrot.’ He poured out a glass of neat absinthe for her. She quickly downed it, and then another one. He rubbed his hands together: she’d been half-rats already, so the absinthe would completely befuddle her wizened wits and now the revelations could begin.

He said: ‘What’s your name, precious?’

She croaked: ‘I’m known as Lushin’ Loo, but my real name’s Lizzie, sir.’

‘Well, Lushin’ Loo, tell me your story. How did a nice girl like you end up as a dollymop?’

Tears welled up and Lizzie closed her eyes. After several seconds her head began to sink. As benevolent as bowel cancer, he growled: ‘Wake up, you little minx!’ and shook her awake. When her eyes closed again, he slapped her face and bawled: ‘Come on, trollop, out with your story!’

Lizzie turned soulful eyes on him and said: ‘It’s a sad story, sir. And frightening. Very frightening. Upsets me to remember it all. I don’t want to tell it, sir. Not for the world. Please don’t make me, sir.’

His interest was roused by the word ‘frightening’ and he would not be put off. He promised her another drink if she would tell. She looked at her empty glass, and sighed agreement. Lolling in a soft leather armchair, he looked at her expectantly.

She began: ‘I was a maid, and one day the mistress sent me into the garden to gather violets for a vase, and the master caught me there, dragged me into the stables and, erm…’e took my maidenhood. After, ‘e told me to say nothin’ if I wanted to keep my job…But it turned out I was with child and, when it began to show, ‘e said I must ‘ave been tupped by one of the footmen and threw me out. That was a filthy trick, sir. I ‘ad to go back to my mum in ‘er damp cottage.’

The great philanthropist yawned and eyed her breasts idly. He crossed his legs and started to jiggle the topmost foot. She flushed, and then went on: ‘I gave birth to a boy, who looked just like ‘is father, but little Georgie, ‘e was always a sickly child. My mum looked after ‘im, doted on ‘im, while I was out workin’ on Jenkins’ farm. When he was two, the poor little mite died. My mum’s ‘eart was broken. She cursed the master for abandonin’ ‘im, and buried in ‘is garden the ‘ead of a skinned cat painted red – she was a wise woman, my mum. Next day she ‘ung ‘erself while I was out at work. That on top of Georgie was terrible, sir, terrible. I nearly lost the will to live.’

Sebastian Tinker had sat up, intrigued by the detail of the cat, but as Lizzie moved on to her mother’s death, he sank back down again.

With a catch in her throat she said: ‘I couldn’t bear to stay where those two ‘ad died, and near the villain as ill-used me. So I came to London. I couldn’t get a proper job. I made sacks, for coppers, and soon turned to drink – pale brandy – to drown my sorrows. Then I got DT so bad I couldn’t do the work no more. Nearly starved to death. Erm, until my bully, Bawdy ‘ouse Bob, got me workin’ for ‘im, earnin’ the bread of shame and –‘

‘Yes, yes, all very tragic, I’m sure,’ said the champion of the poor, ‘but also all very common and tedious. Aahm, what about the frightening stuff you mentioned? You could just possibly be a useful source for one of my stories.’

Lizzie cleared her throat and resumed: ‘There were bloomin’ strange goings-on at the manor after my mum cursed it. The servants were all so terrified they fled. I met my pal Sal, who was also a maid there, and she told me what ‘ad ‘appened. That lucky gal ‘ad a relative in London who –‘

‘Never mind her, dear. Get back to the strange goings-on.’

Lizzie shuddered. Then she seemed to pull herself together and said: ‘Yes, sir. Right, sir. Well, first of all two of the servants ‘eard a door open where there was no door. It was a rum thing, gave ‘em such a start, there was just a wall there, but they ‘eard a click and the loud creak of a door openin’. And then there come this smell of violets in the room. There was no flowers in the room, but they could both smell violets.

The next thing was red words on a wall of the stables. They didn’t see anyone paint ‘em, but they were suddenly there. They couldn’t read a lot of the words, those who could read, often letters were written on top of letters, but the butler made out one of ‘em. It said REVENG. The master ‘ad the letters painted over, but they always came back. Then the stables burned down one night. Most of the ‘orses was killed, terrible it was.’

‘Is that all?’ enquired Sebastian Tinker in a bored voice.

‘Oh dear no, sir.’

‘Well get on with it, girl. What happened next?’

Lizzie took a deep breath and said: ‘The master started limpin’ one day. It was ‘is right leg. The doctors couldn’t find nothin’ wrong with it, but they couldn’t cure it neither. Then one day ‘e went up to the top floor to look for somethin’, and there was an old big mirror in the room, and in it ‘e saw a child ‘oldin’ on to his right leg. The lad looked just like ‘im and was glarin’ up at ‘im angry. Depend on it, it was my little Georgie. The master saw ‘im in the mirror, but when he looked down to ‘is right, ‘e couldn’t see anyone there. So ‘e asked the footman with ‘im, but ‘e couldn’t see anyone either, not standin’ beside ‘im or in the mirror. The master – well, ‘e was dreadfully put out and went a bit queer after that.’

‘Good, good,’ murmured Sebastian Tinker. ‘This is more promising. Anything more? I want something really frightening, I want you to scare me stiff, sweetheart. Anything else?’

Lizzie said: ‘Yes indeed, sir. A terrifying –‘

She stopped with a gasp as the candle next to her flickered and went out. She stared at it, trembling. He was also uneasy. But he really wanted the eerie story, so he said: ‘Just a draught. Go on, damn you.’

She swallowed, and then said: ‘Very good, sir. The very next day, late morning it was, this ‘ere strange woman turned up suddenly inside the ‘ouse, just appeared, nobody knew ‘ow she got in. Sal said she was tall and precious thin, dressed all in black. At first she was just standin’ in the corner of the room, silent and still. With ‘er ‘ead bowed and ‘er ‘air ‘angin’ down over ‘er face. Before anyone could ask ‘er who she was, the master come in. She lifted ‘er ‘ead and made a – erm, like a purrin’ sound, Sal said. Then she started rockin’ on ‘er feet and thrustin’ ‘er ‘ips out. Sal could see the face now, and said it was deathly pale, with bright red lips, and she looked sorrowful, as if someone close to ‘er ‘ad died. Then she gave this twisted little smile and glided over to the master. Sal said she seemed to shimmer as she glided over to ‘im.

Then, erm, she gently took ‘is ‘and, then whispered somethin’ to ‘im that Sal couldn’t ‘ear. Whatever it was it made ‘im start back and stare at ‘er, amazed. Then, like she wants to talk in private, she leads ‘im to the billiards room. And ‘e goes with ‘er meek as a lamb, and she closes the door behind ‘em.’

Lizzie paused and grimaced. She shook her head, and then looked across at the author, who flapped his hand at her to tell her to continue. After several seconds she did: ‘Nobody came out for a long time. Then lunch was ready and the mistress told Sal to go and tell the master directly…She knocks on the billiards room door and calls to ‘im, but there’s no answer. She tries to open the door, but it’s locked. The key’s in the lock, on ‘er side, and she tries to turn it, but it won’t move. The butler comes along, and ‘e tries to turn the key, but ‘e can’t either. So ‘e tries to break the door down. But ‘e can’t on ‘is own, so ‘e calls a footman. They both batter away at it, but together they can’t break it down. Then, when they finally stop, tired out, it suddenly clicks and swings open on its own with a loud creak.

They creep into the room, very wary. There’s no sign of the woman in black. Which was queer, because the billiards room ‘as no other door or windows that she could ‘ave got out of…But the master was still in there, ‘angin’ from a beam with a rope round ‘is neck, stone-cold dead, and with a look of terror on ‘is face. And on the wall, written in red, were the words I AM THA CAT.’

Aahm, excellent,’ said the famous author. ‘Well done, my girl. Hmm…’

He gazed at the floor and pondered. It was all so much superstitious nonsense of course, and rather conventional superstitious nonsense at that, but if he put his mind to it, he could easily make it more sinister. He could make the mother’s death slow and agonizing, with staring eyes and protruding tongue and so forth, and the woman of mystery could be made more uncanny, a vampire perhaps. Yes, he could definitely turn her story into one of his Cruel Tales.

As he formed that thought, his visitor said: ‘No, don’t think of turnin’ my story into one of your Cruel Tales.’

His head snapped round to her and he frowned. How on earth did the slut know what he was thinking? And why shouldn’t he turn it into one of his Cruel Tales if he wanted to?

‘Because you won’t have time to,’ she said. ‘In any case it’s my story, not yours. I made it all up. It’s all lies. Frankly I’m surprised you didn’t spot that. As you were always a big liar yourself. That’s why you’re such a good writer – you’re good at making things up. Always were. You ghastly little man.’

‘What?’ he shouted. ‘How the hell would you know, you insolent bitch?’

‘Because I’m your mother, my love,’ she said in cultivated tones, with no trace now of a cockney accent.

You? Piffle! You look nothing like my mother. You’ve got red hair and all those freckles for one thing.’

Actually there’s a rather interesting reason for all that. Which I’ll come to anon, Stinker.’

‘What did you call me? How the hell did you know –‘

‘How did I know that was your nickname at school?’ she drawled. ‘Because I’m your mother, Stinker, and I distinctly remember you telling your father at dinner one day how much you hated that sobriquet. In tears, you were.’

She lifted one of her breasts and waved it at him, saying: ‘You sucked this. Not just now, when you were a baby.’

He recoiled and barked: ‘Don’t be so absurd. Positively disgusting notion!’

She raised an eyebrow and said: ‘Oh really? Examine me closely and see if you can’t discern some similarities to your mother as you recall her from twenty years ago. This will involve looking at my face rather than my bosom, so you will find it rather arduous, but do try. You really shouldn’t stare so much at mummy’s bubbies anyway, you horrid little brat.’

He snorted, but scrutinized her face. After a while he thought that maybe the eyes –

‘Yes, Stinker,’ she said, ‘they’re your mama’s eyes all right. Her dancing green eyes, with golden scintillae.’ Then, with an amused twitch of her lips, she added: ‘I can tell you that your birthday is August the thirteenth and that you had a lisp as a young child and an unfortunate tendency when over-excited to soil yourself. And who but your mother would know that twenty years ago, to the day, you were lying when you told your father that you’d seen me and that big footman, gorgeous George, making the beast with two backs in the stables? Thereby getting me thrown out by your hypocrite of a father, when George was horsewhipped and confessed that he had been having an affair with me. But we never did it in the stables. It was always in the billiards room. On the table, with my feet in the pockets. No, you lied, you little worm, and ruined my life, by passing on tittle-tattle by the servants that you’d overheard. All because you bitterly resented me imposing some discipline on you, for you own good, unlike your niminy-piminy pater.’

He goggled at her for several seconds. Then he shook his head, to clear it, and protested: ‘This is some kind of trick, you can’t be her, you’re just a whore –‘

‘Oh no,’ she cooed, ‘I’m not Lushin’ Loo, I’m your mummy, my little Stinky-poo. To use my own nickname for you. Which you loathed even more. Now you know I’m your mother, don’t you, my poppet? The mother whom you betrayed.’

He went to protest again, but then nodded miserably.

She nodded back. Then she grinned and said: ‘So you’ve just joined giblets with your own mother, you dirty pup.’

‘Oh no,’ he wailed, wide-eyed with shock.

‘Oh yes,’ crowed his mother. ‘You’re figuring in an episode of perversity and bizarrerie yourself.’ Then she chuckled and said: ‘But at least you didn’t do it for very long. You were quick. And it’s not as if you gave your mama any kind of sick pleasure from the unnatural act. I do believe that your thomas hasn’t grown at all since I last saw it, when you were ten; and your baubles are still like a pair of shrivelled peas. And you’re hardly an expert lover, now are you, you pathetic little flapdoodle?’

He spluttered: ‘What a t,terrible –‘

‘What a terrible performance? Yes, it was. I’d give you a few tips, love, if it wasn’t too late for that. You see, I am very practiced. When I was thrown out, penniless, branded, in disgrace, shunned by my family and friends, thanks to a certain odious little bastard, I had to support myself somehow. It was a desperate time, the worst of times. But you know your mother – and I don’t mean just carnal knowledge. I was not going to take some dreary, menial position as a governess or schoolmistress. No, I went to London and put to good use my great talent for venery. You can be proud of your dear old mama. Thanks to my wit and charm, and the beauty and voluptuous figure that I used to have, I became a very successful courtesan. Operating in Regent Street, and living in elegant apartments in the West End, earning at least fifty sovereigns a week from patrons of the highest social order. So you see all those years of agonized, breast-beating remorse over your cruel act (ho ho!) were completely misplaced. I positively thrived as a prime priestess of Venus.’

He stood up, appalled and mumbled: ‘My god, you dirty…‘

‘Dear me,’ she purred, ‘it’s unhappy, it’s shocked and disgusted. How precious!’ She eyed him with contempt, and then said: ‘Do sit down, you little tulip. It was your doing, you told the lie that brought me down and ended my comfortable, carefree life. Which is why I came out with my lying story. I was playing with you, to give you a bit of your own medicine. Lying to a liar makes for the kind of symmetry that you favour so much in your writing. And I wanted to establish through your reaction to that tale that you are still a callous, self-centred, nasty little shit sorely in need of condign punishment.’

When he went to object, she looked down her nose at him and went on: ‘In so doing I also diverted myself by fabricating a fiction if greater ingenuity and intricacy than anything you have ever produced…And you haven’t got the whole truth yet.’

‘Oh no, what else?’ he asked, shrinking into himself. ‘I can’t –‘

‘Oh do hold your tongue, child. Hush! No, you haven’t got the whole truth yet. Because you see, my dear, darling Stinky-poo, actually I’m dead. You haven’t just rogered your mummy, you’ve rogered a corpse, you perverse creature, you.’

He felt bile rising at the back of his throat and put a hand to his mouth.

His mother smirked at that, and added: ‘Consequently you should check your dick quick: you may have contracted gangrene.’

With a sharp intake of breath he immediately looked down at his crotch.

She burst out laughing and said: ‘For god’s sake, don’t be so vazey! You don’t contract gangrene from swiving a corpse. Addlepate!’

As a wave of relief washed over his face, she continued with a sardonic smile: ‘However, you may well have contracted syphilis. I’m sure I saw a chancre on my quim yesterday, and it felt a bit runny down there this morning… Well, if you will engage in amorous congress with strumpets, what can you expect? Should have checked my old muff prior to grinding, shouldn’t you, precious?’

She relished his ashen grimace of fear and left him to contemplate his crotch and worry for a while. Finally she said: ‘Aahm actually I’m fibbing again, Stinky-poo, getting my own back again. I don’t have a clap.’

He exhaled loudly. After a few seconds he asked: ‘But how can you be a corpse? You’re alive.’

With a nonchalant shrug she replied: ‘Well, a ghost, if you want to be pedantic. Yes, that spooky story was made up and told by a spook.’ She waited and then snarled: ‘And how did I die? Thank you so much for asking, concerned and loving son that you are…It was all thanks to a certain major in the Indian Army. He was here on leave, and had brought something nasty back home with him.’

She paused in thought, gave a ribald grin and said: ‘Mind you, I can’t complain too much. For he also brought back the knowledge of sixteen sexual positions that I’d never even heard of – oh my dear, incredibly athletic, some of them – and a massive member that nearly split my old crinkum crankum in two and gave me the most intense pleasure. And his seed, oh his seed –‘

She broke off upon observing him wrinkle his nose in disgust, and then murmured: ‘Oh dear, is this upsetting your delicate sensibility, hearing about mater’s erotic high jinks? I do apologize, sweetheart, I never imagined it would, you bloody little Mary Ann. But really, how can you be so squeamish when you were behind my degeneration, and you’ve just tupped me yourself, albeit inadequately?’

When her son closed his eyes and squirmed in his chair, she smiled again, and said: ‘Anyway, where was I, my dear reptile? Oh yes, my death, and you not believing in it, or that I’m a ghost. You always were a stupid, stubborn boy, as well as being a viper in my bosom. So, my angel, what can I say or do to convince you? Hmm? I could easily give you a vision of my actual cadaver, complete with empty eye-sockets, crumbling bones and writhing maggots. Would you like to see that? It could be a useful source for one of your stories. No? Oh I say, how disappointing! Why have you gone green, old chap? A most unbecoming colour.’

She regarded him with amusement, and then a mischievous gleam flared in her eyes and she whispered: ‘Well how about this?’ It abruptly grew so cold in the room that he could see her breath as she spoke the final word. Next the candles dimmed, almost went out, then flared back up again.

She cocked her head and said: ‘No doubt, you’d like something less conventional, something singular and grotesque.’ With that she giggled and began to extend her neck. At the end of it her head rose up and towered over him, swaying slightly. She held it like that for several seconds before his astonished gaze. Then she sent her neck around the room. It snaked along just above the picture rail, undulating. All the time her face was turned towards him, gleefully observing him, and when it was half-way round, the right eye winked at him. After the neck had finished a complete circuit of the room, she brought her head down to within inches of his pale face and said: ‘How’s that, dear boy? There aren’t too many living people who can do that.’

Her breath smelled of the corruption of the grave. He gagged, turned his nose away and tried to push her from him. His hand passed right through her. She laughed and said: ‘So, you’re not the only stinker, Stinker.’

Then her neck rapidly contracted with a snap, like a long piece of elastic stretched taught and suddenly let go. With her head back on her shoulders she said: ‘So, Major Carruthers had Rubronecrosis (in common parlance out east, the Red Death), and by fucking me he fucking infected me. And therefore, of course, you are now infected in the same fucking way. Infection is immediate, from a single contact.’

Sebastian Tinker sagged in his chair. His mouth opened, but his throat closed and he couldn’t speak.

But his mother could: ‘That’s rather sad, isn’t it? All very tragic, you might say. Oh yes, and Rubronecrosis is incurable. And – my eyes! – it is a fairly unpleasant way to go…It gets its name from its extraordinary sanguineous effect on the body. It ravages the face worse than smallpox. You get red spots all over it – these aren’t freckles – some of which burst and pockmark you. You also get them inside your mouth and throat, making your voice rasp. And your hair turns red. You lose a lot of weight too, and the pain carves furrows on your brow. No wonder you didn’t recognize your dear old mum.’

Sebastian Tinker shuddered, His stomach felt frost-bound.

She resumed with a malicious smile: ‘Now, what else? There are a few other symptoms too. If I could only remember them…Oh yes: extreme chills, followed by a raging fever and horrendous hallucinations; suppurating buboes in the armpits and groin; extensive vomiting of blood; bleeding from the eyes; and pains in the soles of both feet.’

She paused for thought. ‘Now, did I miss anything out?…Oh yes, I am an ass. The bloody flux. Which, you must agree, is eminently appropriate for you, you bloody shit.’

As he sat there rigid, unbreathing, deep down in an abyss of horror, she went on remorselessly: ‘All in all it’s absolutely agonizing, Stinky-poo. And it takes several days, several long, long days, to die.’

After letting that penetrate, she twitched the end of her nose and said: ‘The first sign of infection is a sneeze.’

She looked at him expectantly.

He sneezed.






PAUL MURGATROYD had a long career as a university lecturer in Classics (Latin and Greek literature, language and mythology in particular) and was Professor of Classics at McMaster University, Canada. He is the author of Mythical Monsters in Classical Literature. His publications include Tibullus Elegies II (1994); The Amatory Elegies of Johannes Secundus (2000); Mythical and Legendary Narrative in Ovid’s Fasti (2005); and From Augustus to Nero (2006).

Towards the end of his career he started writing novels and short stories at weekends, and since retirement has had more time to devote to his fiction. (His poetry has appeared in various periodicals.)

Another of his stories, Lest We Forget, can also be found here at Horla