Horla Fiction (May 2021)




SHE took the cassette out of the padded envelope, slipped it into the player and pressed Play. The familiar voice:

You will have asked yourself, Why? And then thought it obvious that a visually impaired painter would do something unhinged. Or you might blame that arrogant sod of a doctor for having cocked up the operation. Actually, I wouldn’t mind that too much – not considering what he charged.

So this is to set the record straight. I’ll start at my last exhibition. It’s hell seeing the critics’ and the buyers’ body language saying, ‘I think he’s past his best.’ What do they know ignorant hacks and money men? Don’t deny me a spot of the rhetoricals – under the circumstances.

After that I was stressed out, gazing at a big blank canvas. Sometimes I think I would prefer to jump off the Post Office tower or walk barefoot over hot coals than face a blank canvas. I eventually got an idea and worked until my eyes were sore, when I gave up, had a dram, and went to bed.

Next morning I rubbed my eyes and God the pain! Sticky stuff gummed up my eyelids. I’d had that before but not with a pain like a red hot needle pushed through my eyeballs. In the mirror, I looked like Lowry’s portrait of the man with the red eyes. I can put up with pain but what really gave me the shivers was that I couldn’t see properly. My central vision was foggy. Both eyes. And if there’s something the matter with your eyes, it’s impossible to see what it is.

Thank Heavens it was a Sunday morning. All was quiet down at A&E. The night’s detritus had no doubt been flushed away or locked up in choky by the fuzz, leaving a soothing emptiness just for me. I blessed the NHS. Only briefly, but I did. The child who attended me – said he was a doctor, but you can’t believe anyone these days, said it was just a virus. It’s always a virus when they haven’t a clue. To bolster my confidence, he gave me cream to put in some ridiculous number of times and a card for a clinic. How the hell was I supposed to read the card? And we all know that medicines are supposed to be taken twice a day by mouth on a full stomach with alcohol! Anyway the bloody stuff didn’t work. My eyes hurt abominably and I was fast losing my central vision completely. I calmed myself with what little whisky you’d left me.

You know the next bit, because you bullied me into getting admitted to the eye hospital under that money-grabbing smoothie, masquerading as an ophthalmologist. To make it worse, he had views about painting! I don’t have views about his profession – other than he should have got on with the job a damn sight (oh no, missed that one!) quicker.

I knew all that waking me in the night to put stuff in my eyes wouldn’t work. And I wasn’t impressed by the poorly veiled innuendo that it was my fault for not taking medical advice in the first place. Two badly scarred corneas – thanks to their incompetence. I would have loved to sue them but a phone call to your charlatan of a solicitor put me off. Too risky when we all know the judges are in the pockets of the doctors.

At least Beethoven could still compose when he went deaf but a blind painter . . . OK there have been some and I wasn’t properly blind; I could recognise you and even the different nurses, particularly that little one from the Philippines, who …. The point is – I was finished. No painting: no income. That last exhibition was going to live up to its name unless something could be done and fast.

I’d never heard of corneal grafts. Just core out the old stuff and in with the new. Brilliant! It never occurred to me where the new bright, shiny water-clear tissue must have come from. Probably grown on the back of a mouse next to its ear, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Maybe I was a bit impatient and unreasonable but dammit my livelihood depended on it. I couldn’t wait around for new corneas to ‘become available’. I needed them now. You called it blackmail but the press would have listened to whatever nonsense I spouted. I could retract it later but, you know, damage done. He saw sense, and ‘availability’ in a few days magically happened.

There’s a lot of fuss made in films about the moment when the bandages come off. Funny thing is, it’s true. It is a big moment. I was desperate to know if I would still see as before. Are my eyes just simple lenses? Or could their individual structure form my unique vision, valuable both to me and to those astute members of the public prepared to shell out the serious cash that buys loft conversions and decent whisky.

No sweat. Perfect. Of course he told me to rest and all that. In fact that’s all that I wanted to do but I couldn’t be seen with those hideous dark glasses. I’d probably be mistaken for some B list celebrity wanting to upgrade to A. So it was off to the Caribbean for me. No bright sunlight, he said. As if!  I’d just spent ages in total darkness. I wanted the brightest light and the clearest blue sea and sky. If a warm climate was good enough for Gauguin it’s definitely OK for me. I longed for the light and spent my time taking solitary walks along the beach. Bliss.

It happened for the first time a few days later while I was looking out to sea,

A swathe of green rose into my vision. Briefly. But it kept happening. When I looked at the sky or the sea, I would briefly see green. And it became clearer. Grass. Definitely grass. Quite short. I checked my booze for methanol, sniffed the food for ganja and went teetotal for a few days. OK. The one day. Most of it. No difference.

Initially, it only happened in bright sunshine. If I closed my eyes the grass went away. At times I could see nothing but grass but it only lasted twenty or thirty seconds before it blanked out and normal service was resumed. As time went on, I realised that the grass wasn’t really rising; it was the vision of my new eyes that was angling down and just above the grass at some distance there were rows of faces. Above them was the sky, possibly why I hadn’t spotted it before, as there was no contrast between real Caribbean sky and the sky above the grass.

And that could have been acceptable. I wasn’t going to spend my life gazing at tropical blueness and it only lasted seconds, but what came next was a lot more troublesome. A grey wall. Dim but lasting for hours and opaque if the light was bright.

I abandoned my midday walks along the beach in favour of shady corners and my room with the blinds down. I became a recluse, a haunter of late night bars. The wall became more solid and had scratches on it, some sort of writing I guessed but I couldn’t make it out. Now it just stood there in front of my vision in any sort of light.

Then one day it was gone. I raised the blinds in my room and joyfully took a stroll along the beach. The sky was blue – not green, not grassy, just sky. I gazed at the sea intently – all those tesserae of water, reflecting the light with such clarity and sparkle. God it was beautiful and how I had missed it!  A feeling of calm and deep pleasure overcame me as I realised that I had regained the experience that I’d come for.

The squirt of red coming suddenly from my left field of vision really upset me. It arced, rather tastefully if truth be told, up and over then stopped and came back a few times before stopping altogether. It was more of a distraction really and apart from the fact that I never knew when it would happen, not as troublesome as the wall or the grass. But happen again and again it did. I took myself off to the local hospital where, for a fee, they examined my eyes and declared them fine but seemed more interested in my state of mind and how much of the local weed or rum I had consumed. I sharp saw where that was heading and declared myself cured and left pronto.

Sitting in my dimly lit room I wondered what the hell to do. This must be to do with my new eye bits, the cornea thingies. It wasn’t my brain and it wasn’t drugs. I almost wished it had been. I could cope with a bit of cold turkey. Some of the best artists have been stark staring. Never did them any harm. Well apart from that ear business, of course, and the suicides but it didn’t affect their work.

I’d need to go back to my man in London and have it out with him. But I couldn’t leave just like that. I’d have to sit it out in semi-darkness till I was due to fly back.

It is a merciful dispensation of Providence, as the Scottish reverend said about something else entirely, that those of a sensitive disposition (and I include myself very firmly in that category) rarely have to witness the sight of a knife slicing through the soft skin of a female neck. The skin parts, muscle curls out through the cut and then as the knife goes deeper, the spurt of arterial blood arcs outwards, pumping the life force away and away to collapse in a mound of frothy bubbles as the last air is expelled. I screamed and shut my eyes but every time I opened them, there was the ghastly scene. I was condemned to a living nightmare. I could live in the dark and drift steadily into poverty or be driven insane by witnessing inches in front of my face, the brutal murder of some innocent.

I had to find out more about corneal transplants. I’m not good at the internet things and computer screens tended to kick off the visions anyway, but the librarian was very helpful and luckily they don’t go in for wasteful lighting between the book stacks. In fact I didn’t find much there I didn’t know, but I did find a bit of paper, looked as if it had been left by a schoolchild doing a project. It referred to one of those glossy right-wing American magazines, which I found easily enough. I was just flicking through it rather than looking for the particular page, when just after the piece about defeating Colombian drug barons (a likely story!) these words leapt off the page at me.

“. . .is why the authorities are careful to shoot Chinese criminals only in the back of the neck thus preserving. . .”

The power went from my arms and I dropped the magazine on the floor. Involuntarily I looked up at a high window and immediately saw the bruised and bleeding face of a young oriental woman, her eyes gaping with fear and her mouth wide open. A hand, my hand it seemed, reached round behind her head, pulling it back by the hair as my other hand, grasping a vicious-looking knife swung up into my sight. I closed my eyes.

By now you will have heard what I decided to do. There aren’t too many options. Be like Samson in Gaza, free of vision (and visions) for ever; or noble, like Chatterton, and along with my victim let my life ebb away.  Whatever I choose, now you’ll understand why.





James Rose is originally from Northumbria, England. He is a retired physician, recently moved from Scotland to Coventry, in the English Midlands. His short stories have won several prizes and have appeared in The Word on the Streets and Under the Radar as well as an anthology, newspapers and community magazines. His poems and reviews have been published in magazines and online. Just So, a children’s musical, has also been staged on a number of occasions. Previous stories by him for Horla can be found by entering his name in the search engine at the top right of  any our pages.

Title photo credit – Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

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