Horla Flash Fiction (July 2021)

 

THE BURNT CLOWN

by O. JAMIE WALSH

I WALKED to the Hub, the administrative centre of the settlements, to meet a fraught son of Laughter for a Summons in Ordinary.    

Many settlements try to export their passion orientation in the form of workshops or outreach programmes. For most, outreach is little more than adult education: the sharing of expertise among other settlements. Sound/Music has adherents all over, as does Feet in the form of dance classes. For the settlement of Laughter, however, their export has the air of proselytism. Their (unquestioned) faith in the therapeutic benefits of laughter sends them all over, and you hear these missionaries from far off by the quack buttons in the toes of their shoes. Wherever they go on their missions of mercy they sound like a gang of bickering ducks.    

Their task is not a simple one. Dependent on the laughter cure working is a common sense of humour, which for most places is fine but in the settlement of Fear or Death or Cock what makes inhabitants laugh is often uniquely disturbing to the missionaries. In Fear, nothing is funnier than the fleet panic of the moment of shock. The Burnt Clown popping from a shadowy doorway is a favourite. A victim tumbles through brain levels before hitting the lift shaft floor of the animal brain: the synaptic seize of the flight response. Petulino once showed me a slowed film of the Burnt Clown charging from a dark arch on Nash Street. The man charged reacts as a non-Newtonian fluid does when a percussive beat is fed through: spasmodic rigidity, staggery as a new foal, composure fleeing like lit gas. Petulino was right: seeing a human startled like a cat at kip on a sprinkler is hilarious, but Laughter missionaries find this upsetting. They like puns.

The summons today was the usual: the settlers in Fear decided to scare the life out of the messenger, Spike. Fear still uses the old metal cylinder dustbins because the sound of cats on them at night is dreadful. In the Honesty Pit of the Guilds, they set twelve of these bins in a circle, and in each bin (bar one) they set a radio under the lid. When the fathead from Laughter arrived, they one by one began to speak through the radios—    

“You sleep like a puppy.”    

“A door is opening behind you.”    

“Your bottom skin is so so soft.”    

“I saw eyes in your shadow.”    

Spike snatched up the lids one by one to find the bins empty. (He never looked at the underside of the lid where the speaker was.) As he looked in each dark interior with increasing frustration, another settler spoke into his radio across the dial, setting the man running again until he’d lifted every lid bar the one under which the Burnt Clown was ready to spring at him.    

I’d never seen the Burnt Clown up close. In the film Petulino showed me he’s almost entirely in the shadows of the alley, the lower half of his face burned soot-black, the lower lip scorched away to reveal the teeth of his lower jaw. Only the broad forehead retains the trademark white of a clown, the eyes below locked in shadow. Smoke pushes through his clothes so he comes towards the lens like a steam train. Spike had seen more—

    “The clown wore gloves with cooked sausages in finger holsters. Only seven sausages, like he was deformed. They had burst skins. And he grabbed my face with these sausage fingers. They were hot. Hot fat on my cheeks and what I thought were burned fingers that smelled delicious.” I started to laugh. “They ate them afterwards. I was trying to sort myself out. They all came from the shadows and ate the cooked sausages clean off the hands of this awful, awful man.” He looked at me plaintively. “He offered me a bite.”    

I laughed harder.

“I shit myself, omissioner,” Spike insisted, furious, upset. “They made me shit my laughter trousers.”

 

 

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O. Jamie Walsh (self-portrait below) is based in Kent, England. He published a debut collection in 2018 – The Settlements – through Broodcomb Press. The story above comes from an intended second volume (publication date not yet set) called The Revenants. Recent publications include ‘Upmorchard’, ‘The Night of Turns’ and ‘A Trick of the Shadow’, which was reviewed in Faunus, Journal for the Friends of Arthur Machen.

Title photo credit – Bellava G on Unsplash

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