Authors: Charles Black,David A. Riley
First Published in the UK in 2015
Collection © Charles Black 2015
Cover © Paul Mudie 2015
The Obsession of Percival Cairstairs
© 2004. Originally published in Eldritch Blue: Love and Sex in the Cthulhu Mythos
A Fistful of Vengeance
© 2006. Originally published in Hell’s Hangmen: Horror in the Old West
Death on the Line
© 2006. Originally published in Late Late Show
© 2006. Originally published in Forgotten Worlds #4
A Bit Tasty
© 2007. Originally published in Late Late Show
The Coughing Coffin
© 2007. Originally published in Nemonymous 7: Zencore
To Summon a Flesh-Eating Demon
© 2007. Originally published in The Black Book of Horror
The Revelations of Dr Maitland
© 2007. Originally published in Fiction #3, reprinted in Best New Zombie Tales (2010)
© 2013. Originally published in Cthulhu Cymraeg
Call of the Damned
© 2014. Original to this collection
Face to Face
© 2014. Original to this collection
The Madness Out of the Sea
© 2014. Original to this collection
The Strombolli Collection
© 2014. Original to this collection
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Parallel Universe Publications, 130 Union Road, Oswaldtwistle, Accrington, Lancashire, BB5 3DR, UK
“Farringdon, please wait.” The tramp wheezed as he grabbed my arm. I was about to tell the fellow to be off when I realised he had called me by name. I looked a little closer and was stunned to see that I recognised the face that was hidden by a beard and several layers of dirt.
“Good God! Cairstairs, is that you?”
He nodded his head in response.
I hadn’t seen Percival Cairstairs for quite some considerable time, and you can be sure that this encounter came as something of a shock. It was hard to believe that the dishevelled, haggard fellow who accosted me in the middle of a busy London street was really him. For Cairstairs was normally a quite elegant fellow. Within society he was considered the model of fashionable standards. We were never particularly close, yet I felt I could not ignore him. I hailed a cab and despite the protests of the driver – who was reluctant to transport what he termed “a down-and-out” – I took Cairstairs home with me.
“Farringdon, I must account for how I come to be like this.” He tried to explain his situation.
But I forestalled him. “Wait, old man,” I said. “Save your explanation for later. You can tell me everything once I have got you home and you have cleaned yourself up.”
As I have already said we were not close friends, but I could not leave a fellow gentleman in his situation and I must admit I was curious to learn how he had fallen to so low a station.
After he had bathed and shaved, and then ravenously devoured a substantial meal, we settled in my study with a particularly fine bottle of brandy.
Cairstairs gave a brief smile and said, “What is it they say, the condemned man ate a hearty meal?”
Puzzled by his remark, I asked, “Whatever do you mean?”
“I must make my confession, Farringdon. Of course I have been a fool. I have meddled with things I do not understand and done things that no sane man would contemplate doing.”
Despite the warmth of the log fire, a chill went along my spine at his sinister words. He was now wearing some of my clothes and, whilst not as fashionable as the clothes of his own wardrobe would have been, he looked more like his old self. Yet the Cairstairs who sat in the chair opposite me looked older: he had become gaunt, and his hair was thinner and turning grey.
“Well, old man, what’s it all about? How on earth did you come to be in such a position?” I asked.
Cairstairs took another drink from his glass and then proceeded to recount a most incredible and disturbing story.
“It will come as no great revelation that my tale begins with a woman. Audrey Manning. Ah, yes, I see you recall her. A real beauty; it should be no surprise that I fell in love with her the first time I saw her. I tried to woo her, but to my great astonishment she remained indifferent to me.” Cairstairs paused for a moment in contemplation, and shook his head.
I had met Miss Manning once. She did have a certain attractiveness, yet there was something about her that I cannot quite put my finger on, that I found unappealing.
Nevertheless, rejection would have come as a shock to Cairstairs. He was the sort of handsome fellow that normally women would throw themselves at.
Cairstairs continued. “It turned out she was in love with a man called Frederic Hyde. How could she prefer that fool over me?”
“Frederic Hyde? I don’t think I know him, old man.”
“The fellow is a veritable Rasputin. Hairy is the best way to describe him. His dark hair is long and lank, and he has a full beard. In fact, he has hair all over his body; never before have I seen so hirsute a man. How could she bear to touch him or in turn be touched by him?
“I determined that I would become the object of Audrey’s affections. At first, I thought of it as a challenge, but no matter what method I tried to seduce her, they all ended in failure. I could not accept this.
“Then I found out that Audrey was interested in the occult. Now you probably know that I had always looked upon that sort of thing as a load of childish nonsense, but if that was what it would take, then I too would become an occultist. Of course, at first my interest was superficial – it was really just a ploy to make myself seem more appealing to Audrey.
“And it worked, at least to an extent. When she learned I had taken an interest in these matters, her attitude towards me thawed and I thought at last I was getting somewhere. It turned out, however, that although she had become friendlier she still preferred Hyde. You see in occult circles – where he is known as Lord Belphagor – Hyde is considered a master wizard and high priest of their strange religion. And what a strange religion. Gods so utterly alien – outré beings inimical to mankind – it is hard to believe that anyone would worship them. Yet they do, and I was to join their ranks. You see, I realised that if I wanted Audrey to be mine, I would have to take this occult business seriously and become more adept at hocus-pocus than Hyde.” Cairstairs paused to refill his glass before continuing his tale.
“I studied works of esoteric lore, books by men like Prinn, Roland, and Von Junzt, the grimoires of medieval sorcerers, even some tracts by oriental mystics. Volumes of tediousness and madness that made my head ache. But I persevered with my studies of the black arts, and a gruesome initiation ritual saw me gain membership of the coven. ”
Cairstairs held up a hand to silence the question I was about to ask about the nature of the ritual. “I will not say, Henry.”
Instead, he said, “The coven met regularly at a place called Stannard’s Grave. I don’t know if you know it?”
I shook my head. “I cannot say as I do.”
“Well, there is no reason that you should. It’s a small place in the country, hardly even a village. It’s in the middle of nowhere, and it is not the sort of place any respectable fellow should want to be visiting. There are a few houses, a hostelry, and a rundown church no longer used for any sort of Christian service. The locals are a rough lot – no doubt inbreeding is rife. It is the sort of place I imagined Frederic Hyde came from, but I was wrong. Imagine my surprise when I learnt that Audrey was born there. And there is one more grisly thing about Stannard’s Grave: in the middle of the village there stands a gallows.”
“In this day and age? They don’t use it do they?”
Cairstairs did not answer immediately but got up from his chair and paced around the room. It was as if he were having doubts about telling me any more, but eventually he made up his mind and went on.
“Oh yes, Henry, they do.”
“Surely not!” I was aghast. “But that’s barbaric.”
“I know you will find this hard to believe, but the hanging is the least of it.”
“You’d better go on.” Despite being appalled by this revelation, I was also intrigued, if still a little sceptical.
Cairstairs resumed his seat and his story. “As is traditional there were thirteen of us in the coven. Apart from Lord Belphagor, Audrey, and myself the other ten were five men and five women. You would be shocked if I were to tell you who some of those others were. Suffice it to say that several of them hold positions of power and influence. Sometimes we held our rites in the church, a decayed and ruinous building. The interior trappings have long since vanished. Apart, that is, from the crosses that are now all upside down. At other times around the gallows, always with some unfortunate swinging from the gibbet.”
I drained my glass and hastily refilled it. This was turning into a quite disturbing confession.
“Oh, the ceremonies we held. We performed the Black Mass, and strange dark rites that were old before the drowning of Atlantis. We summoned demons and fiends from the blackest pits of hell, made bloody sacrifice to the Old Ones.
“I have taken the Left Hand Path, Henry, and made the pilgrimage to accursed Chorazin. Hocus-pocus I called it, but that was a delusion I did not suffer long. Black magic is a real and powerful force, and although names like Nyarlathotep and Shub-Niggurath will seem like mere mumbo jumbo to you, they are the source of that power. I have ventured through the Gate of Spheres and journeyed to the spaces beyond the stars. Ah, God, Farringdon, if you did but know the cosmic gulfs I have crossed, the inconceivable revelations I have conceived. The veil has truly been lifted from my eyes.”
Cairstairs was becoming agitated. “Calm down, Cairstairs,” I urged, pouring him some more brandy. “Here, have another drink.”
“I made a pact with one of the Old Gods: the Black Man, and signed my name in blood; not just my own. I would serve the Great Old Ones and in return I would gain sorcerous power, and ultimately Audrey would be mine.”
Cairstairs paused whilst I added another log to the fire. Even though it was burning well the room seemed to have grown cold.
“At last Audrey realised the error of her ways. You see, I had cast a spell, an enchantment of attraction between us, and this, along with the fact that I was proving to be more adept at sorcery than Lord Belphagor, had turned her affections from Hyde to myself. Or so I thought.
“Eventually I usurped Hyde’s position as the head of the coven, and as Audrey’s lover, though I do not know whether it was his loss of command or of Audrey which angered him more.” Cairstairs allowed himself a humourless laugh before continuing. “He found us one day making love inside a pentagram drawn on the church floor. He was furious and swore revenge. It’s laughable to think that this outraged him when our depraved ceremonies made the orgies of Roman emperors seem tame.
“I had wondered how Audrey could stand to be touched by Hyde. In those ceremonies I was to learn she could endure the caress of things much more loathsome. In fact, endure is the wrong word. Oh, how she relished Their touch. I should have been sickened, but it is a sign of how far under her spell I have fallen. It was an experience that I too came to welcome. Yes, it was I, not Audrey who was under a spell for it was she who had the real power. Hyde had been the master of the coven, but he was just a figurehead.”
I banished the unwholesome images that came unbidden to mind, and said, “I do not wish to sound like some sort of misogynist, old boy, but women have ever used their charms to get what they want.”
“Oh, Audrey knew the influence she had over men: how she could bend them to her will, especially me. She proclaimed herself, ‘The daughter of Nyarlathotep. The Bringer of Madness’. I believe she truly believed it and I suppose she was right, for I acknowledge I have lost my sanity. My desire for Audrey has spurred me on into actions so abhorrent I shudder to think of them. I have wallowed in blasphemy, but all of it, Henry, I did for love.”
Cairstairs spoke of love, but it seemed more like lust to me. It seemed he had read my mind for he suddenly began to rave.
“Do you think me mad, Henry? Love, or lust if you prefer, can make the best of men act irrationally. We are all slaves to our emotions, and love is the most dangerous; that is what They will use, what will be our downfall.”
At that moment I did indeed suspect that Cairstairs was mad. I thought he must be for the things that he was telling me were not possible.
are there waiting beyond, Their malign presence unknown. They seek our destruction, but first they shall make us mad. They are an insidious evil corrupting our passions, manipulating them to bring about our ruin. Mankind is doomed, Henry.
“Audrey was their instrument – I see that now – but it does not matter; even now I still love her.”
All this wild talk was most disturbing. I could well believe Cairstairs was involved in some sort of devil worship, but to actually believe in the existence of these devilish gods and their sinister machinations was too much. Surely this coven was a depraved group of drug addicts.
Cairstairs needed help. I began to make a suggestion. “There is someone I know who might be able to help. His name is the Reverend William Henry Shaw and he has had some experience with matters of black magic.” Although I felt it was the help of a psychiatrist that he really needed. “Perhaps—”
Cairstairs laughed. “Ha, Christianity! Faith of the feeble. What use is that dying religion?”
“Steady on, old man.”
“I’m sorry, Henry. It’s too late for Jesus to save me now. I’ve sold my soul, and believe me it’s a soul stained the darkest black.” He groaned before continuing. “No, Farringdon, it is too late for that.”
“But—” I began to protest.
“No,” he interrupted again. Abruptly his mood changed and he began to cry. “Henry, Audrey is dead. Frederic Hyde killed her and now he seeks my blood.”
For a moment, Cairstairs sat quietly crying, whilst I contemplated this latest shocking revelation, and then – somewhat appropriately – I was startled by a long wailing cry. As ridiculous as this may seem it sounded like the howl of a wolf. I shuddered as I recalled Cairstairs description of Frederic Hyde.
The wail roused Cairstairs and he began to speak again. “You see, he has even been able to track me here.”
Cairstairs got up and crossed to the window; he drew back the curtain a little and stood staring out for a short while, then he closed it and began to pace around the room.
“Audrey may be dead, but we will not be separated for long. Death cannot keep us apart! She rests now in the churchyard at Stannard’s Grave, but I will be reunited with her. I have found the means to do it and upon the night of Halloween we will be reunited.”