Master of the Macabre ( Part 1)
By mark p
Shand sat in his gloomy flat, gazing at the raindrops going south across the window.
Saturday night and here he was still smarting from the critical drubbing given to him that morning by the Writers' Group.
He wondered whether it was really worth going back.
Some of them had slated his stories for- being derivative - trotting out the usual list of suspects: H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Ramsey Campbell and the like. Some of the comments had been downright nasty. Just because he was not writing fey poetry about being in love, paying strict attention to rhythm and metre of course, or short stories about wifies in Scottish villages, or even stories with animals acting like people!
Ok, admittedly he had plundered Lovecraft and King, but so what? Didn't everyone copy their heroes to start with? What was wrong with wearing your influences on your sleeve?
In his own eyes at least, he was the "Master of the Macabre" and nobody was going to take that from him! He’d show them all one day.
Shand had been writing his "supernatural tales," as he liked to call them for about ten years. His flat was cluttered with books and magazines of the genre. He wasn't giving up writing this because some nippy academic types had slated them for being "Pulp Fiction" or "Like the stuff you read in airports," who were they to decide what was what?
The members of the group were could at best be described as representing a diverse selection of the population. If he wanted to be less charitable (and after today’s critical mauling, he was feeling less charitable) he would be more inclined to describe them as a mixed bag of misfits, social inadequates, and otherworldly eccentrics. Three of the group had been particularly vicious.
Fiona Sinclair seemed to be the ringleader. Victoria Beckham-thin with blonde highlighted hair, she was always first to dive in and critically savage the work of the latest wannabe poet or novelist. Nobody had read any of her stuff in recent years, but she was believed to have a couple of collections of erotic poetry published in the 1990s.
Then there was Robert Ash, a dry, waspish academic who lectured in various things, all of them boring. Ash’s criticism of fellow group members was always one sided and very rarely constructive, he had come down particularly heavily on one of Shand's tales, his update of Dracula to a North-East of Scotland location in the present time.
There was also Bill Denning. Denning was a solicitor, who made a living out of being supercilious, pompous and condescending. He looked every inch the part, with his well-cut pin-striped suits and his immaculately coiffured silver-grey hair, which he believed lent him a distinguished air. He attended the writers' group sporadically, but always raised the hackles of others when he did turn up. His prose work, like Fiona Sinclair's poetry, was thinly disguised autobiography. He would go on about all the cases he had taken, using the persona of "Bill Matthews," a solicitor who would take on any client, no matter how dodgy. He was evidently working on a novel, with Matthews as main character; he hoped to be outselling Ian Rankin before long. Shand's stories had been severely criticised by Denning several times, he had savaged them in a manner like that which he regularly demolished the Crown's cases in trials courts. Denning-had really got under Shand's skin.
Having stared out the window to the street below for about an hour, Shand decided to brave the rain and take a stroll down to the "Queen Vic. He didn’t fancy venturing into town on a rainy night like this. Once in the pub, his gaze was met by a few inhospitable looks, from the regulars. It felt like walking into a saloon in a western movie. The dearth of customers made any chance of a fight breaking out unlikely. It was more likely that a tumbleweed would blow in the door of the place!
Shand stared into space and avoided making eye contact with anyone. He fumed silently as he drank - anger and alcohol mixed together in equal measures. He was midway through his third Stella and whisky chaser when a plan to get his own back on his literary tormentors began forming in his mind.
Shand chuckled to himself as he staggered home. He was imagining three sets of smug smiles being wiped away.
“In her life outside the writers’ group, Fiona was a stickler for perfection. Some had labelled her "obsessive-compulsive," but nothing had been proved as regards that. She did not suffer fools gladly and longed for the day when the perfect man would walk into her life and sweep her off her feet. So far, any men she had been involved with had been scared off after a few months, by her. As a result, she often found herself sitting in her flat, alone, drink within reach, typing out poetry of past relationships and dressing it up a little as erotica. This made her feel good about herself and she had published a couple of chapbooks in this style, penned under the pseudonym of "S". Nobody had guessed who the mysterious "S"was, though some of the writers' group had come close.
Anyway, today she was doing overtime at work. She held a management position in a government office. Management? That was a Saturday laugh! She felt that she ran the place on her own most of the time and got little or no thanks for it. Nobody had any gumption these days, she thought to herself. She was beginning to sound like her mother, she was only thirty-seven, but was sounding like her mother or even her dear departed grandma. It was true though, the place was falling apart, it was like a scenario from the stories of that new guy in the writers’ group, Shand. Shand was basically a horror writer, like James Herbert or Stephen King, and people like that. To be fair, she thought, Shand's stuff was ok, but a little too creepy for her, he was a bit of a creep himself, always seemed to be peering over the top of his steel rimmed specs, presumably he thought this gave him an air of superiority. He seemed to always be wearing the same combo of checked cotton shirt, white T-shirt and jeans that had seen better days. An odour of staleness always hung around him. There was something else about him too, something that she could not quite pin down.
Fiona made her way up the stairs to the canteen to make herself a cup of coffee. It was coming up for half six. She would have a coffee, work another half hour and then make tracks for home. Treat herself to a pizza and a glass of wine, followed by a bubble bath and another glass, a large one of course, she deserved it. She was knackered, had been in work since just after seven this morning and her mind was beginning to flag. She would take the lift on the way back down, she told herself. The kettle was full and still warm, someone had obviously been up here recently, folk were always going where they shouldn't, though nobody had ever been able to prove it-things had gone missing, purses, laptops -it beggared belief. Someone had left out a jar of coffee, so she would help herself to that; nobody would miss a spoon of coffee. Fuck it if you can't beat them, join them, she thought. She spooned the Nescafe into the mug and poured in the now boiling water, then switched off the light and the kettle.
She shut the door behind her and carried the mug out into the landing to the lift. The lift was open when she went through the door into the lift area. Fiona walked in. As soon as the doors closed, she regretted not taking the stairs.
The back wall of the lift opened into a grotesque netherworld, a dark cavern of a place. It stank, like a sewer or something rank and quite possibly dead. She heard a slithering sound, like something wet and squishy making its way towards her through the dankness. There was a muffled chattering. The squishing came closer and closer. The lift shaft door seemed to grow further and further away then urgently slammed shut. Fiona was enveloped in darkness and felt cold wet tentacles grabbing at her. Her screams filled the dark void..."
Shand wondered about this ending. He thought about calling it "Her Work Was Her Life, But Proved to be her Death," but decided-against it - it was a bit naff! Imagine what the fuckers in the writers’ group would say about that! Fatigue was closing on him and bed was the only prospect for him as it was three o'clock in the morning and the drink was catching up on him. He clicked “save” and started to shut down the computer. He would print it in the morning and present it at that week’s meeting. The Group met on Saturday and after mulling it over and having written a short story depicting the demise of one of the "critics," he was prepared to go back with his head held high.
“Bye then, have a nice evening Fiona!” he thought as the screen finally went black.
Saturday morning flicked bars of sunshine through the gap between the curtains and Shand dragged himself and his hangover from the bed and off to the Arts Centre. He arrived to find several the group sat round a table drinking coffees from Styrofoam cups, heads bowed in deep discussion."Hey Shand, didn’t you hear?" one of them called, "We're cancelling today's meeting as a mark of respect for Fiona".
Shand struggled to keep an appropriately sad expression on his face when he heard the rest of the story. Fiona had been found dead at work in a lift shaft, just like in his story. Her funeral was to be held somewhere down south, he was not going, it was not as if she had been family or even a friend.
Was the whole damn thing coming true? He wondered crazily whether the wall of the lift had opened into a "grotesque netherworld" and tried not to giggle.
The rest of Shand's weekend went by in a blur of paranoid thoughts. He had written a story describing her death in the way it had happened, and it just so happened that the act had coincided perfectly with the fiction. But his rational or at least the more rational side of his mind dictated that no one could possibly suspect his involvement in Fiona’s death just because of a story he had written.
Surely it was just a case of life, or in this case, death imitating, art?
Monday washed dirty rain down over the Granite City. Shand's working day in the insurance office was mundane and mindless as ever. Today more than ever, he kept to himself and did not get involved in anything with fellow staff. Despite his shock at the weekend he was working on his second story, albeit under the guise of project work.
Ash's Last Pint:
"Ash sat at the desk musing over whether to go for a drink after work. His day had been pretty good - He would go home and look over the poems he was working on for the next meeting of the writers’ group. His stuff was widely published in small press magazines and various internet sites. He was looking to collect enough poems to publish a small book at the end of the year. He had been favourably compared to Ted Hughes and his chapbook "Fieldfares Flight" had garnered great feedback from various respected literary magazines.
He would walk to a pub, any pub, just for a couple of pints on the way home, preferably pints of real ale. Once he hit the city centre, it was getting dark, and the starlings were flying in scarf- like formations over Union Bridge. He imagined that if this moment had been scripted by Shand, the starlings would have no doubt formed themselves into a skull shape, with snakes wriggling through the eye sockets. He laughed at his even thinking that, what was he thinking about that idiot for?
The guy was a real geek. He had been coming to the group for a few months now and seemed to produce a story a week, which in any other circumstance might be great, the only thing was, all his works ripped off everybody else, it was like having a pub quiz called 'Spot the Influence' with all Shand's tales.
Ash was reminded of when Oasis had burst onto the scene and he and his pub mates had been listening for the compendium of influences in everything they played; like Oasis, Shand's work was highly derivative of other folk's and he needed pegged down a bit. Shona had done her best, but he kept coming back, a glutton for punishment.
(To Be Continued)