Muse

This is the last of my published work to date, a short story titled ‘Muse’. It’s Lovecraft-influenced, and as such, was considered a good fit by the kind editors over at shoggoth.net. It’s ostensibly about where authors get their ideas, or specifically, where one man does, and the price for talent.

 

Muse 

“Where do you get your ideas?”

The question came from a voice out in the audience.  Sam squinted, but couldn’t see past the stage lights.  A bead of sweat tickled his hairline and threatened to roll down his face, smearing the pancake makeup.  Those lights were so hot.  He struggled with a feeling of irritation and pushed it down, then smiled.

“My ideas?  I have a muse trapped in my closet.”

Cue laughter, next question.

It went on that way for the next fifteen minutes, with the host interrupting every now and then to deflect the hard questions with a quick joke or sly obfuscation.  What do you think of the criticism that your female characters are sexist?  How do you feel about groups like PETA protesting the treatment of the Robinson’s dog in Shattered Bones?  Are you a supporter of LGBTQ rights, and why isn’t there more diversity in your novels?

The questions came on like a deluge at times, but Sam weathered it, the easy questions making it easier, and the thought of a fat payout for a speaking engagement making it even easier still.  A part of him was even slightly pleased.  He had a new novel coming out next month, and the better this went, the better it would sell.

Then, the interview was over, and the host thanked him, a tall older man with graying hair and breath like a menthol cough drop, and shook his hand, and then a PA ushered him from the set and to the hall beyond amid the echoes of applause in the background.  He let pride swell his chest for a moment.  One small step for man, one giant leap for hardcover sales.

They assured him his check was in the mail, and the exit was straight down the hall to his left.  He paused in the light, the sunshine bright beyond the door.  He could still hear the echo of the host’s voice in the studio, and the approval of the crowd.  He soaked it in, even though it wasn’t his.  Then he moved on.

*

Sam flopped on his couch and loosened his tie.  He took a pull from the beer he’d grabbed from the fridge, savoring the way the cold coated his throat.  He looked around at his apartment, a sprawling loft with a desk in one corner, a bathroom in another, his bedroom up a short flight of stairs, and a kitchen with an honest-to-God island and granite countertops.

He thought of the critics who said his writing wasn’t worth the paper it was on, and thought to himself – this is what the author hath wrought, look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.  He snorted and finished the beer.  He sometimes wondered if his critics had ever read Shelley, or if they were all disciples of the kingdom of Marvel.

He glanced back at the desk and the closet beside it, a narrow thing with a wooden door and a brass knob that seemed out of place in a room with tile floors and steel and leather furniture.  As he watched, it rattled softly in its frame, a sort of persistent ticking that reminded him of a clock whiling away the hours.  He waved a hand at it.

“Hold your horses.  I haven’t even changed yet.”

He got up and went to the bedroom.  He threw on pajamas and a robe and grabbed his glasses from the nightstand.  That done, he went back downstairs and grabbed another beer, then it was over to his desk, where a sleek laptop waited for him, the screen dark.  He sat down and powered it up.  The door behind him rattled again, more insistent this time, as though it were ready, as though it were excited.

The screen lit with the glow of electronic life, and he opened the document he’d been working on.  He stared at the last paragraph he’d written, and tried to find the thread again.  Something something.  C’mon Ozy, be brilliant.  The door rattled behind him, and he took a sip of beer and turned toward it.

“It would be much easier if some people would just. Be. QUIET!”

The door stopped rattling, and he turned back to the laptop, setting the beer down maybe a little harder than he necessarily needed to.  A dollop of foam escaped the lip and rolled down the side, forming a puddle around the base of the beer.  Sam looked at it and frowned.

He got up, grabbed a towel from the kitchen, and spent five minutes cleaning the desk and the bottle.  When he was done, he dropped the towel in his laundry basket, and returned to the desk.  He put on his glasses, and settled in to work.  Spotty, he thought, and spent another five minutes cleaning the lenses.  When that was done, he slipped them back on and stared at the paragraph on the screen.  No new words had shown up.

He leaned back in his chair and took another sip of beer, his brow furrowed.  The door rattled behind him, once.  He continued to frown at the screen.  The door rattled.  Frown.  Rattle.  Frown.  Rattle.

He blew air out through his nose.  “FINE!”  He took a deep breath and stood.  He placed his glasses on the desk, and walked to the door.  The knob felt warm to the touch.  As though in anticipation, the door pushed against the frame.  A part of him warned against opening the door.  Another part chastised him for stolen genius.  He pushed those thoughts away, and turned the knob.  The door swung open.

Beyond the door was a black vastness so wide and deep it made Sam’s head swim.  Somewhere within, a thing glowing with an inner radiance spun slowly by, ice caking its massive body and flaking off with each agonizing rotation.  Tentacles and eyes protruded from its shapeless mass, and it continued to ride cosmic waves in its blind idiocy.

Sam held his breath and waited, his toes on the edge of the gulf.  He could feel the chill wind that blew from that place, and a shiver walked his spine.  It was only a moment, and an eye, the color of lavender and the size of a beach ball hove into view, its gaze unblinking.  Mottled skin the color of jaundice and stippled with coarse black hair surrounded it.

Feelers, thin and questing, broke the plane of the door and wrapped themselves around Sam’s torso.  He breathed out in ecstasy as they wrapped his neck and the tips found his temples.  The feeling was like breathing honey, like rediscovering sex.  He found he had an erection, and neglected to feel shameful about it.  He felt a presence enter his mind, eager and fertile, questing for the words.  They found them, and he felt the seed planted.  His mind’s eye burst with imagery, symbolism, meaning.

Then it was over, and the feelers pulled back, withdrawing into the dark.  He felt the absence of the presence, and the hole it left behind, and sucked a great breath, as though he’d forgotten to breathe the whole time.  The eye blinked once, and slipped into the black, and he was left staring at mindless things drifting in the great dark.  He closed the door.

*

He sat at his laptop, and the words spilled out, like headwaters, like ink from an overturned pot.  The story began to take shape, the words crawling across the page at first, then walking, then sprinting, a race of imagery that left him feeling elated, and when he typed the last word of the day, spent.

When he was done, he went back over what he had written.

Joe Abercrombie was a hard man.  He liked his whiskey neat, and his women warm.  MaryAnn was one of those women, soft where it counted. He preferred to eat the souls of the young and split the sun in black.  Shia Ia Fthog.  Then there was the Cleveland case.  It was the wolves, they ate his brother on the freeway.

Ha ha, very funny, he thought.  He frowned, and corrected the paragraph, and wondered if he’d had too many beers.  He could get morbid when he drank too much.  He went over another section.

In the beginning was the dark and the throne and the throne was flesh and gristle and the eye that sees burned bright on its crown.  We are the path and the door we are the way to the world beyond the world where the light is never and the dark burns eternal.

His hands shook as he deleted the paragraph.  What the hell?  He flipped the laptop power off and made his way to his bed.  He flopped there and lay, staring up at his ceiling.  Must’ve been corrupted data.  Maybe I shouldn’t have had the beers.  Maybe I pissed it off, making it wait.  He began to drift off.  It’ll be better in the morning.  The light went out of his world for a little bit.

*

He dreamt of the door, of the book that had opened it, De Vermis Mysteriis, and his first frightened and wondered reaction.  He heard a voice in the black of his mind, where the light of reason failed.

PAIN.  COLD.  ENDLESS VOID.  A CRACK IN THE DARK.  FLESH, WILLING AND FERTILE.  PAIN.  PAIN.  PAIN.

*

Sam woke clutching his hand.  He looked down at it through bleary eyes and saw a suppuration had opened in his palm.  He used the bed sheet to wipe away the oozing pus, an action that hurt as much as it helped.  Once it was clean, he could see the palm had split in the middle on a horizontal line, the flesh drawing back in a terrifying imitation of lips.  He pried at one of the folds, and winced in agony as it moved, and he got a glimpse of something black behind the flesh.

God, I hope that’s not tendon, he thought.  He made his way to the bathroom, and dug out the antibiotic cream and a gauze bandage.  He smeared the cream on, and a wave of nausea passed through him.  When it passed, he wrapped the hand in gauze, and grabbed coffee from the kitchen.  After a moment of doubt, he sat at his desk and flipped the laptop on.

It purred to life, the glow of the screen dimmed in the morning light.  He opened the document he’d been working on, and fought the cold dread that made him want to delete the whole thing and start over.  He began to read, his frown lightening as he went.  When he was done, he sat back and breathed a sigh of relief.  The words were just words.  He scrolled back to where he’d left off and stared at the last paragraph he’d deemed worthy of keeping, fingers poised over the keys.  Nothing came.

He wanted to scream in frustration.  Maybe if I just burn down the apartment and start over.  Maybe as a lumberjack.  Maybe as a crash test dummy.

His hand throbbed in time to his pulse, and it was distracting.  He got up and searched his medicine cabinet.  He found a tablet of Clindamyacin, a couple of Tylenol PM, and half a bottle of Vicodin left over from carpal tunnel surgery he’d had a couple of years ago.  Jackpot.  He swallowed one dry, stuffed the bottle in his robe pocket, and sat back at the desk.

A few minutes later, and the Vicodin had kicked in, making the throb in his hand a dull ache that was tolerable.  He poised his fingers over the keyboard, and waited.  Nothing came.

“SONOFABITCH!”  His voice echoed off the glass wall that looked out over the city and rang in the rafters of the loft.  The door behind him stayed quiet.  He turned his chair toward it, and sipped his coffee.  Not even a rattle.  With no little bit of trepidation, he approached the door and grabbed the knob, the brass cool under his hand.

He turned the knob, and the latch clicked, the door opening a crack.  He pulled it wider, and saw only a closet, bare boards as mundane as cornflakes lining it.  A cool dread filled him, that of the threat of his livelihood being cut off, his inspiration drained away like water through a sieve, and he shut the door with a slam.  His head spun, and the ache in his hand redoubled.  He staggered over to his desk chair and sat, his stomach in knots.  He passed a shaking hand over his forehead and looked around, his gaze aimless.

Maybe you pissed it off.  Maybe it needs something.  You take but never give back.

The thought flashed through his brain.  He tried to think of what his muse would need.  What did arcane, eldritch horrors snack on?  He racked his brain.  Doritos?  No.  People, obviously.  But he couldn’t do that, could he?  Maybe he should start small.  There were plenty of rats in the city.  The thought of trying to catch one – sneaking around the sewers with a hunk of cheese and a hammer – made him give a snort of derision.  He thought of hamsters.  That might work.  Hamsters.  People fed them to their snakes all the time.  Why not elder gods?

He stood and felt his cheeks, where stubble lay like a poorly-shorn forest.  He jumped in the shower, taking care not to get his hand wet, then shaved and dressed, and left for the nearest pet shop, a spring in his step.  Best-seller list, here I come.

*

The hamsters were more expensive than he’d expected.  They were cheap, sure, compared to a dog or cat, but ten dollars a rodent was surprising.  He bought three, and a cage, and just so the clerk wouldn’t question his use for said hamsters, a bag of cedar chips and a pouch of food.  He took them to the cab and set them beside him.  As they drove, he watched the little fellas play, scampering this way and that, and felt a pang of remorse for what he was going to do.

Omelet, eggs, buddy.  You can’t write a good book without sacrificing a few adorable rodents to an alien horror.  He barked a laugh and the cabbie glanced back at him in the mirror.  Sam put on his best smile and said “They’re funny.  The little one was dancing.”

The cabbie just shook his head and muttered something in Farsi, but left him alone.  The rest of the ride was spent in silence.  They arrived at Sam’s building, and he paid the man, and then went inside.  Three blind mice, see how they FEED THE SIGHTLESS ONES.

He shook his head to clear it, the thought like static on the radio, and went on up to his apartment.

*

Inside, he kicked off his shoes and tossed his jacket on the floor.  He laid the cage on his desk, pushing the laptop to the side.  The hamsters inside scurried around, unaware of their impending doom.  The thought made him giggle a little.  No Mr. Bond, I expect you to diiieee.

His phone rang, and he fished it out of his pocket.

“Yeah?”

“Sammy, how are ya?”  It was his agent.

“Good.  Look, Saul, I know the deadline’s coming up.  I’m almost there.”  The hamsters played in his peripheral vision.

“I know you’re good for it, Sammy.  Look, I booked another show for you.  Sally Michaels, on Friday.”

Sam’s attention was pulled back from the hamsters.  “Tomorrow?  Jesus, Saul.  Could’ve given me more than twenty-four hours.”

“I know, I know.  But you know how important these pre-sale pushes are.  Just tell me you’ll be there.  I’ll make it up to you.”

“You going to take a cut in your percentage?”

He laughed.  “How about a steak dinner?  At that place on 54th?”

Sam sighed.  “Fine.  But I’m getting appetizers, too.”

“Great!  Thanks, buddy!”

Saul hung up.  Sam laid the phone down and opened the closet.  Still empty.  He turned to the cage and sighed.  Nothing to it, but to do it.  He opened it and grabbed a hamster, its little feet scrabbling against the gauze on his hand.  For a moment, he thought he felt something push back from the other side of the gauze, and ignored it.

He skipped ceremony, and set the hamster in the back of the closet, and closed the door.  He sat down, and waited.  His hand itched, and he scratched it absently.  It sent a warm pleasant buzz though his arm.  After a couple of minutes, there was a scratching at the door.  Excitement filled the pit of his stomach, and he stood and approached the closet.

The handle was that same cool brass.  He turned it, and the hamster scurried out, over his shoe, and through the kitchen.  He sighed, and grabbed the cage.  Not enough, maybe?  He pushed the cage to the back, and closed the door.  After a moment, he grabbed a beer, and sat back down.  His hand was starting to throb again, so he hunted down the Vicodin and popped one, washing it down with the beer.  After a while, the world grew fuzzy, and drifted off.

*

Sam awoke to his hand burning, his head throbbing, and a squeaking coming from the closet.  He stood and opened the door, wiping his eyes with his palms.  The bandages on his hand felt as though they were bulging, and he peeked under them.  Something black and thin and ropelike was protruding from the wound on his palm, and as he watched, it quivered.  He dropped the bandage back over it and ran to the sink, where he puked up his beer.

He wiped his mouth, and wandered back to the closet.  Inside, the hamsters still ran in their circles.  He opened the cage and lifted one out.  The thing on his hand snaked from under the bandage as he watched in horror, and circled the little beast.  There was a sensation of pulsing life, of pleasure, and then a snapping sound as the animal was crushed.  It died with a squeak, and he dropped it, half horrified, half fascinated.  He closed the closet door and sat back in his desk chair.

So…maybe people?  Maybe a doctor?  The thought made him hesitate.  He needed help.  He also needed to finish the book.  A voice in his head, loud and sudden, like a buzzsaw on metal, agreed with that last thought and flushed other concerns from his mind.

Talent feeds TALENT bring us the GRISTLE and let us suck the MARROW.  THE EYE BURNS THE TEETH TASTE THE BLACK.

Sam shuddered.  The voice had been loud.  It had been insistent, and now he knew what to do.  He knew how to make the words come back.  He changed into his pajamas and lay down.  Tomorrow would be a new day.

*

The Sally Michaels Show was new, and popular, and catered to a crowd that was less buttoned-down than the soccer mom set that watched Oprah, and smarter than the set that watched Maury unironically.  Sam was backstage, in his best suit, a fresh bandage over his hand, wrapping to the wrist, and only sweating slightly, a side-effect of the stage lights and Vicodin he’d popped earlier.  He had woke with a headache and a throb in his hand that screamed with his pulse, so he had downed two of the pills on an empty stomach and now he was a bit bleary, but numb.

Sally had so far featured a radio jock whose comments had nearly inspired a riot, a fresh-faced writer from Oklahoma who had penned a book about the humdrum life of Midwest bedrooms, and a model who was being touted as ‘brave’ for being a size 2.  Sam rolled his eyes at that last one.  Then Sally was saying his name, and the PA at his elbow was pushing him out onto the stage, under the hot lights.  Applause swelled around him, and he gave a wave and a smile, and strode across the stage to clasp hands with the blond 40-something wearing too-red lipstick.

Their hands touched, and the thing in his palm throbbed.  He could feel it, moving against the inside of the bandages.  THIS.  THIS.  THIS.  He caught himself reaching for the woman’s face, unaware that he was doing it.  In the front of his head, behind his eyes, a low throbbing had begun.  Sally had a look of trepidation in her eyes.  The audience had fallen silent.  Sam tried to recover with a smile, and raised his other hand.

“Boo!”  He said.

The audience broke into nervous laughter, and Sally pasted on a fake smile for him.  It said, nice recovery, but you’ll pay for that.  Out loud, she said “What else would you expect from America’s best horror writer?  Sam Jessup, everyone!”

The audience broke into applause again, and he waited for Sally to sit in the hostess seat before he sat on his own, next to the model, who smelled faintly of sweat and magnolias.  It was making his head hurt.  He leaned away from her.

“So, Sam, tell us about your next book, Blood Ties.”

Sam smiled.  This was where he shined.  He opened his mouth.

Shaggah fthag naggoth.”  He frowned.  Sally’s smile had frozen in place, and his head hurt something awful.  He smelled the woman beside him again, and turned to her.  “You fucking stink.”  He said.  He regretted the words as soon as they came from his mouth.

“What?”  Her face looked as though she’d just discovered something unpleasant on her shoe.

“Sorry, what I meant to say was crabbah hrdah frthag.”

What kind of shit are you pulling here, Jessup?”   It was Sally, in a whisper.  Sam snapped back to her.  She was close.

An urge came over him, an electric thrill like touching the rails of a model train, or licking a nine-volt.  He watched as his hand made its way to her face of its own volition.  The bandages had fallen away, and he saw the black thing reaching out toward her, undulating as it went.  He saw his hand close on her face, and felt the tentacle punch through her eye, and into her brain.  He felt pleasure, and knew his erection was back.  He relegated it to so much flesh and ignored it.  She tried to scream, but his other hand was over her mouth.  He was dimly aware he was no longer driving.

His head hurt, and he felt them, words forming in his mind as the woman who struggled and flopped against his grip died, blood streaming from her eye socket.  The audience had decided they didn’t like this, didn’t like it one bit, and had begun to flee.  The woman beside him had already run from the stage after letting out a high keening wail, leaving behind a piss stain on the couch.  Somewhere in the distance was more shouting, though coming closer, and Sam knew it was security, or the cops, or just a few goons with tasers.  He didn’t care.  He could see the words, like fire in his brain.  He’d waited so long.  He spoke them.

“SHAGGALAH FORNOTH CTHUUUN RTHAGGA GRACHKE.”

His forehead split, and pus rolled down his cheeks.  He could see clearly now, the world in the correct dimensions.  He breathed air that was air and not the endless cold of the void.  He smelled the warmth of flesh and the pulse of the world, and knew it was fertile.  The purple eye rolled in its new socket and sensed the men coming.  It didn’t matter.  The words were the gate and the way, and they came even easier now.

Abandoned cameras continued to roll under the too-hot stage lights, and the insidious creep of the words played on.

 

 

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