Horla Fiction (December 2021)

 

PROBLEM FAMILY

by JIM MOUNTFIELD

The problem family downstairs were making so much noise that Graham turned on his TV and loudened its volume in an effort to drown them out. Indeed, the noise they made was so bad that for a minute he didn’t realise he was listening to a news programme.

And Graham made a point of not listening to the news.

One floor below, their voices sounded like the pounding of cudgels. Him shouting, “You daft bitch, don’t you realise how much fucking money that crap cost us – ?”

Her shouting back, “Don’t come any closer, don’t come any fucking closer, you come any closer and I’m calling the fucking police – ”

The boy yelling at both of them, “Shut up, shut up, just everyone shuuuuut up – !”

And the toddler going, “Whaaaaah!”

Briefly, their racket distracted him from the fact that the channel was showing a studio interview on the topic of a current news story. The presenter, turned around from her desk towards a face on a big screen, was saying, “…our viewers will be alarmed to hear you use the term ‘tipping point’. That suggests the situation is already so far gone that it can’t be reversed.”

The man on the screen, an expert about something or other, replied, “Well, yes. We’ve unwittingly prepared the… terrain that this intruder thrives on. And now that it’s arrived, now that it’s taken root – literally taken root – it may be impossible to remove it.”

“Since you appeared on our programme yesterday, we’ve received countless emails asking the same question. ‘Terrain’. People are confused by that word. Can you explain again what you mean?”

“Okay. We’ve always assumed life could only flourish in a physical, observable landscape, whether that landscape is soil, water, vegetation formed by other living organisms. But here’s a new life-form…  New? Maybe it’s an ancient one that’s always been with us, only in the past millennia it’s been dormant, awaiting the right circumstances to emerge again. Anyhow, it thrives in a psychic landscape. A terrain that, hitherto, only proponents of thought-transference, telepathy, ESP, believed existed. A terrain of out-of-body thought emanations, of emotional waves and pulses – ”

“This is extraordinary, Professor. This is very hard to grasp…”

“It is. But in the current crisis, we need to grasp it fast.”

“Your psychic landscape, if it exists, must always have been around us. Throughout human history. So why this, now?”

“Why now, indeed? I suppose it’s reached a particular pitch, a particular intensity, that the intruder finds conducive. The utter violence of the emotions filling this landscape today are what’s summoned it. Perhaps after a long hibernation – ”

Shocked at finding himself watching the news, Graham used the remote not to change to another channel but to kill the power. Then he sat staring at the black screen. The news had become so unremittingly bad that it’d started to add to his depression so, a few months ago, he’d decided to cut it out of his life. He hadn’t exactly felt brilliant since then. But, disconnected from the external world and deaf to its grim tidings, and prescribed some new medication with seemingly positive effects on his mood, he’d lately found things more tolerable.  

He tried not to wonder what the interviewer and interviewee had been talking about. He just sat and faced the void of the screen until, a minute later, the silence was invaded again by the voices of the problem family downstairs.

“You daft bitch, don’t you realise how much fucking money that crap cost us – ?” 

“Don’t come any closer, don’t come any fucking closer, you come any closer and I’m calling the fucking police – ”

“Shut up, shut up, just everyone shuuuuut up – !”

“Whaaaaah!”

He felt a growing realisation that action needed to be taken. He told himself: I’ll have to go down and speak with them.

The prospect made him nauseous. He wanted to stay inert in his chair. But he knew he had to take some initiative, and leave his flat, and go downstairs, and intervene. Because unless someone intervened, the verbal violence happening one floor below was going to get worse and turn into physical violence, and someone would get hurt. Maybe badly hurt, irreparably hurt. What if it was one of the children?

And if that happened, how bad would his depression be then?

Graham stepped out of his flat, then stepped back into it because he discovered that neither the light for the landing nor the light for the stairs were working. He picked up his phone, intending to use its torch, but put it down again because it was dead. The last time it’d been recharged was days, possibly weeks ago. Instead, he found a proper torch. Outside, the torch-beam roamed across the landing, past the door of the adjacent flat to his right, to the door of the flat at the landing’s opposite end. A couple of cardboard boxes sat outside the third flat’s door. One was open at the top and a sweater-sleeve hung out between its flaps and down its side.  He vaguely remembered two or three young women, students probably, living there. Maybe they were moving out. 

Then, because the landing was so silent, he wondered if they’d already moved out. Apparently in a great hurry, because they’d forgotten some of their belongings and left them on the landing. 

Suddenly, the voices boomed up the stairwell on his left.   

“You daft bitch, don’t you realise how much fucking money that crap cost us – ?” 

“Don’t come any closer, don’t come any fucking closer, you come any closer and I’m calling the fucking police – ”

“Shut up, shut up, just everyone shuuuuut up – !”

“Whaaaaah!”

The building’s stairwell was like half of a corkscrew, bisected longways. From the end of each landing, a half-coil of it rose to the opposite end of the landing above. The problem family’s flat was below the female students’ flat, or former flat, but the stairwell seemed to channel the noise they made right up to Graham’s front door. 

He went down the stairs, the torch-beam skittering through the dark, alighting and planting small, fleeting circles of light on the concrete stairs and walls. Halfway down, he went by the staircase’s single window. The glow of the nocturnal city seemed to flicker while it entered through that window, as if the city’s lights were malfunctioning and stuttering. Momentarily, he was aware too of distant, angry shouting – not from one position outside but from several. He had a vision of other problem families creating simultaneous mayhem in other apartment buildings. 

But not his problem family. His family, his problem, awaited him below.

He passed from the bottom stair onto the next landing down, which was equally dark, and arrived at their door. While he searched for the bell, a vertical line of light flashed in front of him. It came from behind the door and showed it was slightly out of its frame. He pushed the door back, saw only darkness beyond and reluctantly crossed the threshold. Whatever had just flashed didn’t flash again.

It turned out that the living room wasn’t wholly dark and he didn’t need his torch to see. A membrane of pale light seemed to lie over its surfaces. In places this light was a glassy blue, in others a fuzzy green. He peered at the surfaces – patches of the floor, a tabletop, a serving counter that divided the room from a kitchenette area – trying to identify what was causing it. He saw how the light sheathed everyday objects. It encased a kid’s scooter lying on its side, a fluffy sheep-toy, some scrunched-up pyjamas, a tangled pillow case, other toys, clothes and bedlinen strewn about the floor. It haloed dirty plates, dishes, mugs and cutlery, open cans and milk cartons, crumpled food wrappers and other pieces of clutter on the table and counter. Normally, those items would have suggested mess and chaos. Now, swaddled in blue and green light, they had a weird sense of orderliness.

More flashes occurred, enabling Graham to see that the air in the room was even more congested than its horizontal surfaces. Countless long, thin fibres floated there like a mesh of ectoplasm. Not only did they crisscross one another but thinner fibres branched off from them. These produced the flashes. Successions of green and blue light pulsed through them, indicating they were transparent, perhaps crystalline as much as organic. They were rooted in the objects on the floor, tabletop and countertop, sprouting upwards from them before twisting sideways.

Graham heard one of the voices again: “You daft bitch, don’t you realise how much fucking money that crap cost us – ?” Simultaneously, some of the fibres moved. Their ends were attached to a figure ambling across the far half of the room, waving its arms. Enclosing the figure were dapples of the same green and blue light that Graham saw elsewhere in the room. Flecks of that light seemed to fall off and drift behind it, then after a few seconds fade and disappear.

A second figure appeared. It retreated as the first figure advanced on it. More fibres shifted. “Don’t come any closer,” it shouted, “don’t come any fucking closer, you come any closer and I’m calling the fucking police – ”

Graham tried to discern the face where these words originated. All he saw was a mouth filling the front of the figure’s head. As the voice wailed, this widened, gaped and shrank again like some round, rubbery opening at the feeding-end of a worm.

A third voice – “Shut up, shut up, just everyone shuuuuut up – !” – and a third figure ran across the floor, more fibres writhing around it, though they writhed at the level of Graham’s legs because this figure was smaller. It was close enough for him to see that its surface was grainy in texture. Each grain had its own glint of light. Areas of these gave off green light, other areas blue. A few grains broke away, floated, dimmed and died behind the figure. As the words escaped from the cavernous opening in its head, the head wobbled and squirmed like a lump of plasticine in a primitive stop-motion-animation film. 

Then a screech – “Whaaaaah!” – very close to him. Looking down, he saw a small form crawl out from under the table and arrive at his feet, fibres sprouting from it like multiple umbilical cords. It raised its head and showed the big, glowing hole that corresponded to a mouth. The hole’s inside surfaces were grooved with luminous, toadstool-like gills and amid these he glimpsed a few white flecks of enamel. Teeth, an infant’s first teeth. Remnants of what’d been this thing’s original human host –

Then the web of fibres stopped flashing, the figures and their pained voices disappeared and the room became dark again, save for the rinds of green-and-blue light on its debris and litter.

Graham breathed slowly, trying to recall what the expert had said on the news programme. A violence of emotions… That’s what attracted it.

Terror was a violent emotion too. For a few moments he managed to control himself, to stay calm. He knew that surrendering to terror now was the worst thing he could do. But then, suddenly, it possessed him. He spun around and charged through the doorway and back up the stairs. As he bounded upwards, he screamed –

He bounded from the bottom of the staircase to its top, then from the bottom to top again, and from bottom to top again. Each time his scream ended, it seemed to restart. While these things happened repeatedly, he became aware of patterns of green and blue light forming around him and of the stairwell filling with hovering, tangled fibres. 

Running up the stairs in terror, up the stairs again, up them again, he screamed, screamed and screamed, until that scream seemed to become his whole face.

 

***

Jim Mountfield was born in Northern Ireland, grew up there and in Scotland, and has since lived and worked in Europe, Africa and Asia.  He currently lives in Sri Lanka.  His fiction has appeared in Aphelion, Blood Moon Rising, Death Head’s Grin, Flashes in the Dark, Hellfire Crossroads, Horrified Magazine, the Horror Zine, Hungur, Schlock! Webzine and Shotgun Honey and he blogs regularly at www.bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/

Title photo credit – Alex Plesovskich on Unsplash

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