As I mentioned in this post, my very talented writer friend Orrin Grey is re-releasing his first collection of short stories, Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings through Strix publishing. You can check out the Kickstarter campaign right here. Orrin is a horror writer, and a damn good one, and he and Strix Publishing have given me permission to post one of the stories in the collection here. So, check out the “The Barghest” below for a taste of what you’ll get in the premium re-release of Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings. If you’re a fan of weird fiction and horror in general, this is one you don’t want to miss.
By Orrin Grey
I was standing by the side entrance when they brought in the bones. Would you believe me if I said that as soon as I saw them I knew they weren’t human? Or any other indigenous animal? I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. It’s a difficult thing to credit.
It wasn’t any training that told me, or my experience at the museum. I didn’t see the bones long enough for that, just a glimpse of the brown skeleton–the wrong-size skull, the wrong-way legs–and some primal part of my brain said “monster.”
I threw away the butt of my cigarette and followed the men who were carrying the stretcher with the skeleton on it. I wasn’t surprised when I saw that they were carrying it to your part of the lab.
I remembered you on the phone, arguing with Kelso over a skeleton that was found out on the moors somewhere. You wanted it, you said. The museum had paid for the dig, and you were the senior paleontologist on staff so it belonged to you.
You were waiting when they laid the stretcher on the table. That’s when I got my first good look at it. It was the size of a big man, but it definitely wasn’t a human skeleton. Looking at the bones, I was hard put to say if it was a biped or a quadruped. I imagined that it moved like a bear, or like a great ape. Its hands were too big for a human and terminated in hooked talons, but they had clear opposable thumbs.
The skull was simultaneously apelike and doglike, a toothy muzzle like a baboon or a mandrill. I remember making some offhand comment about Lovecraft’s ghouls, but you were unfamiliar with Lovecraft. You never cared for anything you deemed “disposable culture.”
As the investigation into the remains went on I bought a copy of Tales of H.P. Lovecraft edited by Joyce Carol Oates, whose name I thought might lend it some credibility in your eyes, and gave it to you with the page containing “Pickman’s Model” tagged. I’ll bet it’s still on the shelf in your office, with the tag still on it. I’ll bet you never even picked it up.
If you had read it, though, you would have understood why I brought it up; you would have known what it was about the bones that left me at once intrigued and uncomfortable. How human they looked, and how inhuman. Not like the bones of some Neanderthal man, some earlier species of humanity, but instead like something that took an alternate evolutionary path, something that should have been human but became something else instead.
Those sorts of thoughts didn’t interest you, though. I know that. You were always dismissive of what you called my “supernatural thinking.” You always regarded the museum as beneath you, and me as beneath the museum. You treated me with a grudging tolerance, and never admitted that the reason we worked together was because none of the other interns would work with you.
“What is it?” I asked you that night, because for all your coolness you liked it when I asked you questions, and because I really did want to know what you thought. I was curious if you had some explanation that would take all the parts and somehow make of them something other than a monster.
“Something new,” you said, and that was all. It was less than encouraging.
Of course, it wasn’t something new, was it? It was as old as the dirt in which it was found, as old as men telling campfire stories. We learned that, you and I, but you learned it first.
I remember how carefully you cleaned the bones. The peat in which they were found had preserved them, like a fossil without the stone. They were perfect; no flesh left for us to macerate, just those ossified brown bones. I remember watching you work over them with your little brush, your magnifying glass, carefully turning over and examining each and every tiny piece.
I wasn’t allowed to do any of the real work, wasn’t to handle the skeleton. When I was in the lab, I stared at the skull.
As with most carnivore skeletons, the skull seemed too big for the rest of the bones. It dominated the table, drew the eye. Those teeth that seemed too big for the mouth they filled, those gaping sockets. If I looked at it one way it was pure animal, like a wolf or tiger, if I looked at it another it was disturbingly human.
I’ve spent a lot of the time since then wondering how it happened. You were so careful. Was it your eagerness that was your undoing, or did something else render you suddenly clumsy? Were the teeth simply sharper than you imagined they would be, after remaining buried for so long?
You know how, sometimes, when you walk into a room, you can tell that something has changed before your mind has processed what it is? When I walked back into the lab that night, I knew that something was wrong before I took in any of the details. From where I was standing in the doorway, I could see the skeleton on the lighted table, and my eyes naturally traveled to where the skull would normally have rested, only to find a blank white space where it should have been.
Only then did I notice that you weren’t there. I walked to the head of the table. The skull was on the floor, teeth and pieces of jaw scattered across the tile. And mixed in among them were fat red drops of blood.
I went to the break room then, but you weren’t there, just more drops of blood spattered on the back of a chair and the surface of one of the round Formica tabletops. The first aid kit on the wall hung open, and pills in individual packets lay scattered across the counter and the floor.
Why did you go to the ladies’ room, I wonder? Was it shame, fear of appearing mortal and fallible in front of the help? Or did you know, even then, that something was wrong, more wrong than the gouge in your palm or the blood you were losing from it?
I knocked on the door, and you knew it was me. “I’m fine,” you said, without my even needing to inquire. “It’s just a scratch. Go clean up the lab, and be careful.”
At the time I thought nothing of that “be careful.” I assumed it was concern over the integrity of the bones, displaced anger at the damage to the skull. But since then I’ve wondered. Did you know, even then? Was your concern not for the bones at all, but for me? It doesn’t seem like you, but then adversity sometimes brings out the best in people.
I have a lot of questions that I know will never be answered, but the one that troubles me the most is how soon you knew. When did you first realize what was happening, and how long did it take that realization to become knowledge, to become acceptance?
By the time you came out of the restroom I had already replaced the skull on the table and mopped up all the blood, both in the lab and the break room. If you were there I know you would have rolled your eyes at me, but as I put the skull back onto the table the black sockets looked darker and deeper than they should have, and I got the feeling that something was staring out of them at me.
I knew you’d been lying about it just being a scratch, I’d cleaned up too much blood for that, but it wasn’t until you came out of the restroom that I realized how bad it must have been. Your face was pale, the color bleached from it, like a person about a minute away from going into shock. Your eyes looked red, as if you’d been crying, and your right hand was swathed in most of the gauze and bandages from the first aid kit.
When you came into the lab you held your injured hand up to your chest like a cat with a hurt paw, and you put your other hand out to a table to steady yourself.
“That looks like it might need stitches,” I said, though of course I couldn’t see the wound itself. “You should probably let me take you to the emergency room.”
You nodded tightly but didn’t let me take you to the hospital until you’d examined the skeleton and verified for yourself that the damage wasn’t extensive enough to compromise the find. I noticed even then, though, that you were careful not to touch it.
The doctor at the ER put eleven stitches in the palm of your hand, and just like that I became necessary to you. With one hand out of commission, you couldn’t do the fine work needed to examine the skeleton, and so I became your hands on the job.
Did you ever stop to wonder why I worked with you when no one else would? Why I was willing to pull down the same preposterous hours that you insisted on? Did you think that I was attracted to you? Or did you just think that I believed you were the genius that you believed yourself to be, and that I wanted to ride on your coattails?
Maybe you didn’t think about it at all. That would be more like you.
Someone else might have noticed something different about you immediately, might have caught on sooner, for good or ill. Had I watched TV or read the papers I might have heard about the girl who was mauled to death in a park near your house that week, might have said something to you that would have forced a confrontation, elicited some response in you that I could have interpreted. But by the time I came home from the museum I was exhausted and all I wanted to do was to curl up with my ghost stories, which you regarded so scornfully, and then sleep.
Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered what I noticed, what I said. Maybe you still didn’t know yourself. I’ve not yet determined how aware you are when it happens, how much of you is left.
You always said that the surest road to combat superstition is study, but no matter how much we examined the bones I was never able to shake the sensation that they were not the remains of anything wholesome or natural, not even the bones of some mutation or aberration, some lusus naturae. You, of course, were no help.
I bought a book of folktales from the British Isles and took to reading it before I went to bed. I read about Black Annis, a cannibal witch who lived in a cave under an oak and ate children. She hung their skins in the branches to dry, and then wore them tied around her waist. I read about Black Shuck, a dog the size of a horse with eyes like saucers, and the more recent “shug monkey,” which reminded me more than a little of the thing on our table, with its mix of primate and canine features. I read about the shapeshifting Barghest, which may have inspired Dracula’s transformation into a monstrous wolf.
If I ever told anyone but you what I’ve seen since then, what I’ve learned, they’d send me to a psychologist, and that psychologist would undoubtedly blame my “hallucinations” on those stories. They’d say that I’d been priming myself, and that when events occurred that I couldn’t deal with, I used those myths to give context to a truth that I didn’t want to admit. But, as you always said, psychology is a soft science, and what happened to you, to us, is anything but soft.
Looking back now, everything seems so inevitable. Maybe if you’d been allowed to keep the skeleton, things would have gone differently. Maybe the charade could have been maintained a little longer, but I think it was doomed to come down, sooner or later.
I remember when, just two weeks after the night you cut your hand, Ms. Trevayne asked you to come into her office. She didn’t draw the blinds, and I knew just by watching what she was saying to you. You stood in front of her desk, your wounded hand drawn into a fist at your side, your other hand gesturing as you shouted at her.
When you stormed out of her office you called her a cunt, a word I’d never heard you use before, and told me that she was taking the skeleton away from you and giving it to Kelso, which I had already guessed. This would never have set well with you, even before, but you would have approached it disdainfully, with an “it’s their loss” attitude, as though you were too good to get upset. Your desperate rage took me by surprise, and when you walked back to the lab you forgot yourself and slapped both your hands palm down against the table. That’s when I knew. Knew that you weren’t hurt anymore, that your hand had healed completely even though the stitches weren’t due to be taken out for another week.
“She can’t do this to me,” you said, an under-the-breath growl I wasn’t intended to hear. “She can’t do this to me. Not yet.”
But of course she could, and when I walked into the lab that night and saw the table empty I knew she had.
You weren’t there, and I assumed that you’d already left in a huff. I almost just turned around and went home. How differently would things have gone then?
Instead, I decided to head across to the other side of the wing, to the lab that Kelso normally used. It’d be nice to say that some premonition prompted me, but I don’t think it did. I think I was just curious. I’d never seen you defeated, I was curious to see what someone else’s victory over you looked like.
As I rounded the corner I could see the light from Kelso’s lab flickering and swaying, like the illumination of some sideshow spookhouse. I think I ran to the door, then, but I don’t really remember. As vividly as I can recall everything else, the order of the next few seconds are jumbled in my memory. It’s as though everything I saw exploded into my mind at once, a kaleidoscope of snapshots.
The half-smashed light fixture that had come loose from the ceiling and was swinging back and forth, throwing its funhouse illumination on everything. The blood, shockingly red against the tile and the table and the wall. Kelso’s arm, in one corner, the rest of him crumpled behind the table. All of those things, though, were driven out of my mind when I saw the thing you had become.
It had taken only a glimpse of the bones for my primate brain to realize that they belonged to a monster, a teratism, something that should not exist. Seeing you like that took even less.
The thick black fur. The way you stood, crouched and bent, like a man who has been forced to crawl on all fours for years. The snout, like a wolf’s only crushed in, the teeth too large to fit in the mouth. The hands like Halloween monster gloves, only the claws making them seem real, reminding me of Black Annis and her iron talons.
You looked at me, I remember that. Your eyes weren’t big as saucers, but they were red and bright and amazingly clear and strangely human. I believe, to this day, that I saw recognition in them. That you saw me and knew me and chose to spare my life. Then you were gone out the window.
I didn’t call the police. I stumbled over to the wall, hit the fire alarm, and then collapsed to the floor beneath it. The sprinklers kicked on and I sat in the artificial rain, with my knees drawn up to my chest, and didn’t move until the authorities arrived.
The sprinklers probably destroyed the crime scene, but the police would never have been able to understand what had happened there anyway. I don’t even remember what I was asked, or what I told them, but I know that I didn’t mention what I really saw.
I remember being told that I was in shock. I remember someone wrapping a blanket around my shoulders as I was helped into an ambulance and driven to the hospital. It was only then, while I was sitting in the emergency room in my wet clothes, that I remembered the thing that I had seen but not noticed earlier.
The bones, of course. They hadn’t been on the table, and in one of your big, misshapen hands you had carried a canvas bag just big enough to contain them.
They let me out of the hospital eventually and took me back to my apartment. They told me to stay there, but I didn’t. I changed into dry clothes and then took a taxi to your place.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been to your house, of course. You’d sent me to pick things up for you from the museum before. I even knew where you kept your spare key stashed, though it didn’t turn out to matter because the back door was hanging open, the knob torn out of the wood.
I can’t say what made me walk through that door into the dark interior of your house. Maybe I was still in shock.
I didn’t turn on any lights. I walked through the kitchen, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness. There were smudges on the walls beside the staircase that looked like chocolate syrup in the dark, though I knew they weren’t. I followed them upstairs.
You were lying facedown on your bed. The blinds were drawn, but a wedge of streetlight came in through a gap in them. You were naked, your skin pale and human in the dim light, looking as smooth and new as the flesh of a baby. The bag of bones was on the floor beside the bed. I stood watching you for longer than I probably should have, measuring the rising and falling of your breath as you slept. Then I took the bag and walked back out.
I’ve not yet guessed why you wanted the bones so badly. Did you hope to extract from them the secret of a cure, some tincture of silver nitrate and wolfsbane? Or was it simply that you wanted to keep them close to you, your only connection to the thing you had become? Either way, it doesn’t matter anymore. I burned the bones in the incinerator in the basement of the museum before I made this recording. All but this one tooth.
Even if I hadn’t, though, it wouldn’t have made any difference. Cures are for movies, not real life. I don’t know what you are any more than I imagine you do, but I know it’s not something you get to come back from. Soon, though, you won’t have to be alone anymore. You’ll have something better than bones for company.
What does it feel like, when you change? I bet it isn’t like the movies, the gradual shifting and lengthening of bones, the sprouting of fur. I bet the beast just tears out of you, as though it’s been there all along and your skin is just a disguise that it’s been wearing. I’ll bet that’s what it’s like.
I don’t know if you’ll ever see this video. I don’t know how long it will take you to come for me, or even if what comes for me will be something that can properly be called “you.” But I know that you will come for me, sooner or later, and that when you do I’ll be here waiting for you, ready to meet you head on.
You see, I’ve torn my hand with this tooth, just as you did. I’m coming to meet you now, just as surely as you’re coming for me. I’m coming to join you in wherever you’ve gone, whatever you’ve become, and we’ll let nature–or whatever it is that governs things like us–take its course.
This one had its origins in, of all things, a terrible movie called Werewolf that I saw on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Maybe not the most auspicious of beginnings, but I thought the idea of someone becoming a werewolf because they were scratched with a fossilized tooth or bone from a werewolf was a setup that deserved some better treatment than a film starring Joe Estevez.
That was where it started, but once I was writing I realized that I didn’t want this to be a werewolf story exactly. At least, I didn’t want to use the word werewolf anywhere in the story. Giving something a name like that is an easy way to dismiss it. “Oh a werewolf, I know what that is,” so instead I decided to build the monster up using suggestion and allusion. I’d wanted to do something with some elements from British folklore like Black Annis and, of course, the Barghest, and I found that this was the perfect story for it. Throw in some more allusions to Lovecraft’s ghouls, and there you go.