Black Beasts

I like our house, especially at night. It’s always much warmer than my friends house. My parents aren’t any richer, they’re just as poor as anyone, but somehow they manage to heat our house better during the long winters. At night, I love watching the flames of the fire and listening to them cackle. I love the feeling of comfort and togetherness when me, my older sister and our parents eat dinner and watch television together until it’s time for bed. When the cold bites, as it always does in December, the more people that are in the room, the warmer you feel.

Our idyllic family life has changed a little since my dad got a new night job down at the small local train station. My dad doesn’t like trains, said he’s a bit scared of them. My dad, a man who’s had fights with every Tom, Dick and Harry in the town, is actually scared of something. He said it’s because he puts his life in the hands of a machine each time he rides one, and he doesn’t like to lose control like that. I myself don’t like the speed they move at, their enormous size, their frightful power, or their animalistic ferocity when in motion. I don’t like the way they slither out of a pitch black tunnel at night and slowly get bigger and scarier and faster as they approach you, or the way they can blow old ladies over when they charge past a platform. They make both me and my dad nervous. Despite this fear, he is now a night watchman at the local train station. Said it’s a job he has to do, since it was the only one available.

“It’s because you’ve done everything else and they’ve all sacked you,” said mum acidly.

  

Fresh out of further options, dad took on the job he knew he’d hate the most.

It wasn’t just the trains that were so unappealing about the job. It was the cold that tore away at him at night. It was the fog that had been setting in each day recently. It was the fact that he was taken away each night from his comforts; the fire, the pub, his pipe, the television and his warm bed. It was a lousy job but he knew he had to stick it out because we needed the money and he enjoyed the respect it gave him.

Just lately, however, I’d noticed something different about the way dad acted. I’d heard him burst into the house at six-ten in the morning with noticeable panic in his steps, rather than his usual calm, as though he was trying to escape from something. Usually, he would open and close the doors quietly, pour himself some tea, and make his way upstairs to bed with slow, gentle steps on the staircase. He was careful and sensitive enough not to wake the house while morning was only just beginning to break.

Lately, he veritably barged into the house with the alarming fumbling’s of a madman, slamming the door shut, and hurriedly trampling up the stairs without first removing his boots, so that the terrible noise he made stirred everyone. Then, he would stay in bed for much longer than he previously did. And when it came time to go to the station again at ten pm, his countenance would pale at least half an hour before the clock chimed. He would turn ashen, struggle for words on the rare occasions he spoke, and stare into the fire, as though entranced by the flames. We would talk to him, mother would nudge him to go to work, but it was as though he hadn’t heard us.

“Work, yes,” he thoughtlessly muttered on one occasion as he put on his coat and cap.

He didn’t want to go, and it wasn’t just the trains that were frightening him. There was something else, I could tell. Something terrible and maddening had been happening down at the station.

I knew all about ghosts since mum had warned me about the one that supposedly haunted the landing in our house. I knew they made people tremble before them, even mums and dads. And I knew dad had come face to face with one down at the station. It was the haunted look in his eyes, the commotion he made when he came home, and the way he changed for the worst before it was time to go to work. It wasn’t just the trains that did this to him.

One night, ten evenings before Christmas, Manchester United were live on the BBC. Dad was in good spirits because George Best, his favourite player, had scored and we were winning. Even better, the television worked without a problem for once. I was switching my enjoyment between my toy car and the football, while occasionally my dad peered out of the window to check the snow outside. It was a relaxed, nondescript evening of contentment and I was happy.

But as the hour of duty approached, dads mirth was vanquished by time. The game was moving into extra-time and dad wouldn’t be able to see it to the end. It wasn’t that which darkened his mood, nor was it the cold or the appearance of the thick fog once again. His face was troubled for he knew that it was time to go down there, into the depths of the icy station and to once more be met with whatever sinister secrets it kept.

As he put on his cap and bade farewell to the fire, the football, his family and his pipe and slippers, I could see in his eyes that he had witnessed something out there that he couldn’t explain. If it could be explained in logical terms, he would have done so by now. Either that, or he had been sworn to silence by the ghouls veiled by the fog of the night.

A minute or so after he’d left the house, I showed mum the flask of tea that dad had left behind.

“He’ll be back when he realises he’s left it, the daft sod,” said mum.

I told her that he wouldn’t be back, as he’s not allowed to leave his post unmanned. I begged with her to let me take it to him. I wanted to follow him down to the station to see what he’d seen out there with the fog that hid the stars of eternity.

Mum was reluctant, but I begged and beseeched her not to let dad go a whole night without his flask. “He’ll get sick,” I said. To avail her fears of me coming undone on the way to the station, I reminded her that it was but a ten minute walk and that I knew the route by heart.

Unhappily, she unlocked the door and I scurried out into the frosty, blackened, appallingly foggy night. It was treacherous on foot and much colder than I had anticipated. Moreover, the fog was an evil one that would hide all the bad things man would be doing that night. But I knew that if I ran, I could catch dad up and stay a few paces behind him so that I would feel safe while remaining unseen.

I never did catch him up, however. For a man who was so grimly terrified of the station, he walked quickly enough to get there. And yet, when I eventually arrived there myself, ever so careful not to be seen or heard, I saw no man nor any trailing shadows. I heard the shrill whistle of the wind and the whine of an approaching train, before feeling its wrath as it flew past me. I felt the cold nibbling at my toes, fingers and nose, and I felt the hands of the fog groping me before thickening as I tried to move through it. I saw the blurred glimmer of the station floodlights above me and I nearly lost my balance on the ice beneath my feet. But I didn’t see dad, nor did I hear any footsteps, of the comforting kind or the other.

Troubled, cold and frightened, I was prepared to give my presence up and called out to him, but there was no answer.

“Dad?” I screamed again and again, bewildered and unsure of my own bearings.

I looked down at the shiny wet train tracks below. I looked up and down the platform and across to the other side, but there was no sign of my dad. It was then that I noticed how quiet the station was at night. I’d never witnessed silence like it before. It was a repulsive silence, the kind that surely drives sinners mad in the beyond. My eyes followed the tracks to their misty vanishing point, and for a moment the thought that this was all that existed now in the world drove me mad. And yet I knew that the warmth and protection of home was mere minutes away and that I could hurry back whenever I wanted to. Mum was surely preparing me some hot cocoa by now.

I stayed for another five minutes until I could bear it no more. My whole body was shaking from the cold and I was dreadfully worried that whatever had got dad would get me too. I wondered with dread what phantoms lurked behind the bushes, what rapacious winged beasts from hell were circling above me, or what worm-like spirits would rise from the earth and take me down into the filthy depths with them. I knew then that the station and its abysmal secrets had got my dad. Worse, they knew I had been coming and had made sure I was too late to be his saviour.

So I ran home and arrived at the door breathless with the flask. It took me so long to explain to mum what had happened because my teeth were chattering so much from the cold and the fear. Eventually, now crying wildly, I told her that they had got dad. The station itself, indeed, had got him. She was puzzled. It was as though she wasn’t sure what I meant, but still she called the police and told them they must go to the station right away as something bad had happened. I knew that was utterly pointless. He was gone.

As it turned out, they recovered my dads body that night. It was found hanging from a tree. The spirits had left him like that, cold and exposed. In death, so frail, so vulnerable, so naked, so human. I never saw the body, but I can only wonder what they did with his soul. I’m just glad my mum never got to see and feel what I saw and felt down there. And now I miss my dad like crazy and wish for spring and summer to vanquish these vampires of the night and mind.

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The Happy Channel #1

Hector was enjoying watching a live band – The Flying Ostriches – who were playing Creedence Clearwater Revival covers at The Blind Pig. He was getting increasingly drunk, against his better judgement.

“I’ve got work tomorrow,” he weakly told Candice, a regular at the bar who was taking an interest in him tonight and plying him with Tequila shots.

“I thought you were a freelancer who could work whenever he wants, baby,” she said, her ams wrapped around his neck, her sweet hips swaying.

“I do, but I’ve still got deadlines,” he said, wriggling himself free from her grip. He span around and walked into a heavyset man, spilling his own drink slightly. He wandered off from Candice towards the stage.

“Who’s that punk, Candice?” asked the heavyset, bearded man, who was wearing a sleeveless denim jacket covered in badges.

Candice tapped a cigarette, lit it and took a much-needed drag.

“Hector. The weirdest dude on earth.”

The cool, moonlit Californian night sobered Hector up somewhat as he walked home to the apartment he shared in Santa Monica with his friend Chip, who he thought was the weirdest dude on earth.

Chip didn’t work, lived in his gown, smoked exotic drugs all day but somehow had money for the rent. He also seemed to always have a new woman each week. And she was always stacked and smoking hot, according to Hector.

He had a car, too.

That night, Hector returned home to find Chip glued to the television set as usual, the lights off. This time he was sharing their coffee, booze and pizza-stained couch with a sweaty, greasy, plump male who had taken his shirt off, and who Hector didn’t recognise. He had a friendly if disgusting young face that was riddled with pimples. They were both drinking beers, and had finished a pizza off together.

“Hector, this is Big Ben. Big Ben, this is Hector. They call him Big because … actually, why do they call you Big?”

Hector nodded at Big Ben, who lazily returned the greeting.

“What are you watching?” asked Hector.

“This is a new channel that Very Big Ben here introduced me to tonight. I’ve never heard of it before. It’s called The Happy Channel. It’s goddamn amazing. It’s like crack. It’s hidden away on Channel 788. Literally no one knows about it yet. What we have discovered tonight is a miracle. Hector, there aren’t many more miracles left to discover, which is what makes tonight’s discovery all the more amazing. I ask you to bottle this moment because it may never come around again.”

“What’s so great about it?” asked Hector, unconvinced.

“All the content on this channel is designed to pump serotonin into your brain,” explained Chip. “It just gives you good news. Take the weather report. This beautiful woman – who Biggie Ben says gets naked after midnight – tells us it’s going to be sunny every single day. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or if a hurricane is sweeping up civilians, she’s going to make us believe that it’s sunny. I’m literally drowning in serotonin, dude.”

“Sounds like a crock to me,” said Hector.

“You just don’t know how to be happy. I never need to leave the house ever again. I’m gonna live in this fantasy land and I can’t thank Ben enough for having introduced me to it.”

Hector thought it was the weirdest thing he’d ever heard of. He told Chip he was going to do some work in his room.

“Let’s get lit instead,” suggested Chip. “The sun is out, we’ve got beers and The Happy Channel is grooving.”

Hector knew the sun wasn’t out. It was 11PM. It was dark. He wondered what Chip was smoking this week.

He retreated to his room to work but soon realised it was impossible. He had a deadline in the morning, but the raucous laughter and hooting coming from the living room and the four beers and two Tequila shots he’d had were tempting him away from his work. He couldn’t focus.

“Goddamn Happy Channel. Goddamn Candice,” he muttered, before joining Chip and Ben for drinks.

He drank so much that night that he blacked out.

The next morning, Ben woke him to ask what they should do with Chip’s body over breakfast.

“Where is Chip anyway? It’s not like him to miss pancakes,” said Hector, whose head was throbbing.

Ben pointed him in the direction of Chip’s dead body. Hector could see a lifeless hand poking into his line of vision from underneath the living room table.

Hector vomited, before Ben explained what had happened last night.

“I don’t recall Chip falling over, smashing his head and dying,” protested Hector.

“You saw it happen, carried on dancing, and said we’d sort it out in the morning,” Ben explained cooly.

“You’re telling me that I saw my best friend die, and decided to let him turn into a corpse without calling the ambulance because I was having too much of a good time?”

“That’s exactly what happened. You fell over the body at one point and banged your head. That’s where you got your cut.”

Hector touched the cut on his forehead and winced from the pain. It stung.

“This is insane.”

Hector started to cry.

“You’re grieving, I get it. I’ll give you a moment,” said Ben after Hector frowned at him for asking if he could have his pancakes.

Hector was grieving for his only friend, the hedonistic, devil-may-care bum from the City of Angels who had had the most profound impact on his life. He had introduced Hector to literature, Nietzsche, peyote, girls, and even bits and pieces of happiness. Hector had thought he was the most enlightened guy he ever knew.

And now Ben was suggesting they bury his body. Just like that.

“It might look like murder if we just call the cops. We could go to jail.”

Hector wasn’t sure how it would look like murder, but since his memory of the night before was so paralysed, he went along with whatever the mad and probably dangerous Ben suggested.

They hid the body in the trunk of Chip’s car, before Ben told him they must now go on the run.

It was all too much for Hector, but Ben had the scalpel-sharp, persuasive spiel of a salesman and he was able to tap into Hector’s pain points. Hector didn’t want to share a prison cell with a “Mexican, who will sexually brutalise” him, as Ben graphically put it.

And when Hector asked how they’d survive and make money, Ben told him that he could work on the road as a freelance writer.

“Just carry on doing what you’ve been doing recently. All you need is your laptop. Your life will be exactly the same as it has been until now. The only difference is you’ll be living in Chip’s car as opposed to your flat.”

Hector knew his life would never be the same again.

Ben’s idea was for them to steal Chip’s car – which he reasoned was hardly stealing, since the guy was dead anyway – and live in it. Ben would find Hector clients, and Hector would write the articles.

They would journey across America, evading the cops and living what Ben called the Laptop Lifestyle. Ben was fantasising and getting a boner. He said they would live the American Dream, and there’d be steaks, whiskey and girls.

“And as much blueberry pie as you like.”

Hector thought Ben was a nut, and that he was living in a deluded, murderous fantasy.

But fearing prison, he went along with the chubby stranger’s idea. Just three hours after finding out that his best friend in all the world was dead, Hector found himself on the road with an overweight lunatic.

As they careered into the desert with few possessions and Chip’s corpse, the sun began to set at the end of the pale blue horizon. Ben told Hector about his theories.

“One day there will be no such thing as crime,” he insisted, a calm tranquility radiating across his puffy features.

“How’d you figure,” asked Hector, preparing for an Orwellian dystopian vision in the middle of no where.

“The Happy Channel will wipe it out. Crime won’t exist anymore because we’ll never hear about it. We’ll be hidden from the reality. A new truth propagated by the media – that crime doesn’t exist – will become music to our ears. We’ll accept it.”

“You’re really into this Happy Channel crock.”

Ben told Hector what else he was into. His interests included UFO’s – he claimed to have been abducted – and ZZ Top.

“Relax man,” he said, noticing how nervous Hector was as darkness covered the whole world before them. “Everything will be rad. You’ll see.”

Hector barely slept that night. When he woke up in the morning in the front seat, his body ached and his skin was coarse from sweat. He heard a grunting sound, and when he got out of the car he saw Ben dragging Chip’s blue jeans off his limp, horribly decaying body.

The upper half of Chip’s body was still in the trunk, while the bottom half was out in the open.

“What the fuck are you doing?” asked a panic-gripped Hector. He looked around the desert for passers-by.

“Relax, there isn’t a car in sight,” said Ben. He was flustered; his face was red, and sweat was dripping from his forehead. He took his wet shirt off and then shimmied Chip’s trousers down to his ankles.

“Come on Chip, gimme these jeans,” said Ben teasingly like a girl seducing a man. “You know you want to.”

Hector knew the scene was grotesque.

Days passed. Hector wasn’t able to piece together a decent article because all he could think about was the cops on their tail.

Each time he built momentum and fashioned a good paragraph, distant police sirens rocked his flow.

“They’re fucking coming for us, man.”

“Stop being a queen,” Ben would say.

Worse still, their use of the laptop was rationed because the battery was dying. Its death was brought about much quicker by Ben watching The Happy Channel.

Their money was running out, too. To ease the tension brought about by Chip’s death, the threat of prison, and having to sleep in the proximity of a stranger with acne, Ben suggested they go to a roadhouse that night and hook up.

Against his better judgement, Hector agreed. And so on a cool summer night, just as the sun had set, the two unlikely drifters went to get drinks at a roadhouse.

Hector took a girl back to the car. Just as he was making it with her in the back seat, Ben got into the front seat with an older man who smelled of stale beer and cigarettes. He was a hunter, who was wearing a checkered wool shirt and red hat. He called Ben his “deer.”

“What the fuck is this?” asked Hector.

“I told you we were gonna hook up.”

“But not at the same time. And not with a dude!”

Ben ignored Hector’s protests and started kissing and fondling and molesting the hunter.

The hunter, for his part, threatened to shoot Hector as things got tense.

The girl with Hector was disgusted. She fled, accusing all three of them of being perverts.

Hector, feeling sick, walked half a mile into the desert. He sat on the sand, looked up into the heavens, and asked God to tell him where his life had gone wrong.

“Please get me out of this,” he said in an emotional supplication beneath the Californian stars.

In the morning, he woke up to find the man Ben had made it with dead on the backseat. His head had been mashed.

Hector knew then that Ben was a killer.

“You murdered Chip,” said Hector, distraught.

Ben said he hadn’t killed anyone because killing didn’t exist anymore.

“Just watch. The Happy Channel will wipe it out. And it will be beautiful.”

Ben tried to kiss Hector, who punched him in the face.

“Did that punch exist? Huh?”

Hector didn’t want to go along with Ben’s disturbed fantasy anymore. But as they sat in a diner that afternoon, he began to realise that Ben’s words had a nightmarish truth to them.

As he scanned the diner, he saw everyone holding iPads. They were watching and talking about The Happy Channel. They were smiling widely. Not a single person wasn’t smiling.

He overheard two young girls talk with enthusiasm about how it was so great that crime didn’t exist anymore, and that everyone was going to live forever.

“I’m so amazed that we’re never going to die,” said one of the girls. “But will we always look this young?”

“I don’t know, babe. I just don’t know. But I sure as heck hope so,” replied her friend.

He listened with horror as a trucker told anyone who would listen how his son, who had been missing for twelve years, was now known to be in a place called Pleasure Gardens, a place where all people assumed to be missing were.

“Isn’t it amazing?” he said to both Hector and Ben, tears pouring from his eyes.

“Amazing, brother. That’s some gone news. I’m so happy for you,” beamed Ben. He patted the emotional trucker on the shoulder.

Hector wasn’t beaming.

“Why can’t you be happy for him?” asked Ben.

Hector shook his head.

“What is going on?”

Ben took a big bite out of his burger.

“You still don’t get it do you, man?”

Hector planned to run away from Ben and turn him in to the cops. But as he ranted about his plans in the dusty desert, he knew it was pointless. He was talking to a man with a muddied brain. A man who  believed he had been abducted by aliens.

“Whatever you do isn’t real anymore,” said Ben calmly, smiling all the while.

“So, being out here in the desert with a lunatic isn’t real? Having no money isn’t real? Having a dead body in the trunk isn’t real?”

Ben shook his head.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

Over the next few days, hunger began to gnaw away at Hector. His laptop had died, his sanity and reason was slipping away from him, and Chip and the hunter’s body’s were smelling something awful.

Worse still, their gas money had ran out. They were flat broke.

But Ben continued to smile with an inner radiance. He continued to talk about UFO’s as they stumbled through the desert on foot at night.

“You ever been abducted?”

Hector said that he hadn’t but wished that a UFO would swoop down right now like an angel of the stars and take his troubles away. He wanted to go to Neptune.

The next afternoon, they found a bar. It was empty, save for a barman who was entranced as he watched The Happy Channel on the big screen TV.

“Where is everyone?” asked Hector.

“At home watching The Happy Channel,” said the barman. “What can I get you two beautiful souls?”

As Ben and Hector drank, the barman casually told them how he had murdered his wife last week.

“But it doesn’t matter, because murder doesn’t exist anymore,” said the barman, with Ben chiming in for the second half of the sentence. It had become a national manifesto.

“All that exists is beauty and happiness,” said the barman.

“Ain’t that the word, brother.”

At that moment, Hector knew that humanity head reached a new, strangely cruel epoch, where people had become desensitised to reality – or unreality. He couldn’t decide which.

People were killing each other but no one would admit it.

Or no one knew.

Or no one thought they knew.

He didn’t know which. But he knew that if he did, he would go insane.

It was like he was trapped in a chaotic algorithm.

He struck out on his own. He headed for Candice’s apartment back in Santa Monica, hitching a lift off a middle-aged couple on their way home from Reno who couldn’t understand why a young man like Hector wasn’t at home watching The Happy Channel.

“That boy will be eternally depressed until he switches that channel on soon,” joked the man to his wife.

“I’ve never seen so much gloom,” said his wife. “And in this day and age, too.”

His mind warped by near-starvation and heat exhaustion, Hector thought about killing them, just to test Ben’s theory. But he had no weapon.

Moreover, his moral code kicked into gear just as he leaned forward to bonk the wife on the head with his clenched fist.

At Candice’s, he had to knock for what seemed like forever until she opened the door.

“Sorry, I was watching The Happy Channel.”

She was surprised to see him, and didn’t look half as pleased as Hector thought she would.

He had interrupted her at the worst time, she told him.

She poured him a drink. She was gone a long time and Hector heard her on the phone.

Hector, in a bid to shake her back to reality, switched through the channels to show her some bad news. He was looking for a massacre of Muslims, a car bomb in Yemen, a stabbing in Britain. Anything.

There was nothing.

All the media outlets were reporting good news only.

There was happiness everywhere Hector looked.

“I’m sick of this happiness shit, Candice. It’s a lie, can’t you see it?”

“I’ve never seen someone so unhappy,” she told him. “Watch The Happy Channel. It will cure you.”

In a rage, he smashed her television set and sawed her remote control in half with a hacksaw.

He destroyed her iPad and her iPhone.

She feared for her life. She had forgotten what an unhappy man looked like, and she thought he was going to kill her.

Tormented, Hector wandered the empty streets. Few people were around. Everyone else was inside watching The Happy Channel.

He returned to Candice’s house to get some sleep, ready to apologise for what he had done to her entertainment platforms.

But as he entered the house, he was greeted by Ben who was armed with a gun.

Ben shot him in the stomach. He stood over Hector, as the dying man gasped for air.

“All you had to do was be happy. That’s all you had to do. Why was that so hard?”

 

 

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Dragged Into The Darkness: Mayhem Live

Mayhem 30.03.2017, Manchester Academy 2

In many ways, it’s remarkable that this gig even happened in the first place. Out of all the bands in history, Mayhem has a past darker, more murderous, more twisted than most: One of their founding members was hacked to death by a fellow musician, while another killed himself. His succinct suicide note read, “Excuse all the blood, cheers.”

And all this before their debut album had even been released. Who could have imagined that a band haunted by a gory past would be playing to a sold-out crowd in Manchester over twenty years later?

Grisly stories such as these are probably to be expected from a band whose past members include a guy called Dead and another called Maniac. But from some such bloody, haphazard and macabrely comic beginnings came an album that was to cement their legend even more than the murders and the suicides, proving that this bunch of greasy pagans from the frozen north were not just hell-bound gimmicks. And last night, for the first time ever in Manchester, Mayhem performed that eponymous debut album in its entirety to a crowd baying for blood (literally).

And if anyone thought an ageing band who have released only four full-length albums since 1994’s game-changing De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas would have toned things down a bit, last night’s chillingly atmospheric show proved that such fancies were misguided. Mayhem may be one of the founding fathers of Norwegian Black Metal that go way back to a time before I was even born, but they’re still relevant, still evil, and still scary as fuck.

The tone for the evening was set by Dragged Into Sunlight, a nasty, brilliant band who fully deserved their role as Mayhem’s evil sidekicks for the night. Their thunderous sound was complimented by black metal ephemera that turned the Academy’s stage into a sacrificial altar: Candlesticks and animal heads. It was ritualistic. It was pure, old school, theatrical Black Metal.

But Dragged Into Sunlight, despite their penchant for gimmicks (their faces are always covered in photo shoots), are a serious band who are more-than worthy stage setters for the Princes of Darkness. And it was fitting that their hour-long set was greeted by a packed Academy crowd who knew that this is one of the hottest bands around right now. They chugged, screamed and vomited their way through their slender but excellent back catalogue of songs. It was a genuinely terrifying spectacle.

As good as Dragged Into Sunlight were, Mayhem were the real reason the Academy 2 was packed to the rafters with metal-heads of all ages. Black Metal is about more than just the music. It’s about image, theatrics, and ideology. Mayhem know this more than most. So when a bell started to chime and blue smoke rose from the stage, you just knew you were in for one hell of a show from the godfathers of BM.

They teased us for a few minutes with that bell – and I imagine its chime is the same as the bell that tolls for us all when it’s time to exit this mortal coil and enter god-knows-where. It was a prefigurement of the exhausting eternity that is to come. Last night, though, what was to come were pagan fears, Black Metal nightmares, feral, punk-inspired riffs, cataclysmic howls, and all-round sonic derangement.

On stage, Mayhem looked like a coming-together of black-robed ghouls; zombie-like druids here to summon heathen gods. Their frontman, Attila, is a proper showman. More Freddy Kruger than Freddie Mercury, he twists his body into mangled shapes, and conjures imaginary spirits – or maybe he’s just busy resurrecting the dead? His voice is one of the most recognisable in Black Metal; it’s helped to define the genre, and it was pleasing to see that he is able to translate it into a live setting. It’s hard to imagine how one Norwegian man’s voice could sound so deliciously malevolent. It’s the stuff of nightmares.

The band tore their way through the album in complete fidelity to the original track listing, pausing between songs with the lights out. Freezing Moon got arguably the best reception, and to this day it remains their best song. The band captured a feeling when they wrote that opening riff in the early nineties; it was a death-punch that came at a time when Black Metal was reaching its peak. Today, the song as a whole continues to put most modern post-black metal bands to shame with its sinister atmospherics.

And this was really what the show was about to me: The return of Mayhem, the unveiling of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas in a live setting for the first time, showed the pretenders who the gods really are. The gods are Mayhem. There will never be a band quite like them ever again. They ripped themselves out of their mother’s womb prematurely, they are the quintessential evil twin incarnate. They are the Antichrist whose diabolical past is not pure mythology – it’s very, very real. The album they played live was an album recorded in blood. In a genre that is increasingly being watered down by hipsters, Mayhem returned to vanquish all and reclaim their throne.

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Babies

It had been eight long months and Christine’s bump was still no bigger than a small sack of potatoes.

“Our baby is due in twenty-two days and it’s not even nearly fully formed,” she said with concern to her husband, Richard.

It was true. Scans at the hospital had revealed that Christine and Richard’s baby was due to pop in twenty-days, but it was no where near ready. It still had no feet or hands.

“It will be ready,” said Richard in an attempt to reassure his wife. He held her hand, but she yanked it away.

“Ready? Ready?!” she asked heatedly. “This is not a ready meal, Rick. You think it’s going to suddenly get its act together and grow its limbs in twenty-two days? You think its fingers are all going to grow and its internal organs are going to start functioning in just twenty-two days from now? What is this? Some kind of magic baby?”

Richard sensed there was something magical about the whole thing.

“Twenty-two days is an estimate. It could be thirty days,” he said as optimistically as he could, but there was no conviction in his words.

Richard was inwardly as concerned as his wife, but he wasn’t going to admit it. Her father Billy had already pinned the blame on him for creating a baby that couldn’t form in time for its due date.

“There was some shit in his semen,” Billy had snarled. “He probably drank his own piss the night before. He’s a worthless piece of shit that can’t do nothing right. I just want a goddamn grandson.”

Christine herself didn’t admit it to Richard, but she was also sure that he was at fault. Before getting clean and converting to Christianity, Richard had delved in drugs. Not for long, but he had turned his blue veins brown with heroin and his nose white with cocaine.

Richard was also tortured with the belief that he was to blame. He knew he had poisoned himself with drugs and alcohol in his youth, and he was worried that it had contaminated his sperm. He feared that he wasn’t able to create proper babies.

His faith in God was the only thing that kept him strong during these dark moments in his life.

“Please God,” he would say in nocturnal supplication. “Please, let my baby form. Let my wife deliver our baby in time. I will raise it according to your Word. Please don’t let me be at fault for this.”

As the days edged nearer to the due date of March 9th, Christine and Richard began to wonder if it would still try to worm its way out of her vagina, despite being no where near ready.

“If it pops out the way it is,” said Christine while looking with tenderness at her small sack of potatoes, “it would surely die straight away. The doctor has already said its heart isn’t properly formed.”

“It might not die.”

“And if it doesn’t? How will it walk? Talk? Eat? How will it go to school? How will it learn to drive?”

“It will be fine. God will see to it that it will be fine.”

Richard picture a blind, limbless creature rolling around on the floor. His heart began to weep, and his face bleached.

A lone tear ran down Christine’s cheek. She began to quietly sing a lullaby as she stroked her tummy.

“Well, I’m not going to lie to you that this is certainly something of a unique case. At least here in Manhattan,” said their consultant, Dr Aaron Di Caprio during a consultation. He bounced a tennis ball between his hands.

“What’s going to happen on March the ninth?” asked Christine with a lump bigger than her baby in her throat.

“Nothing?” asked Di Caprio, as though surprised by the question. “Nothing can happen. The baby isn’t ready.”

Christine and Richard looked at each other in supreme perplexity.

“We know that,” said Richard. “But what does that mean?”

“You’ll have to postpone the baby shower,” replied Di Caprio with a warm smile. “Look,” he began as he stood up, placing the tennis ball carefully on his desk. “This is a most queer happening. But queer things happen. Take a look at this photograph.”

Di Caprio pointed the depressed couple in the direction of a black and white, grainy photograph of our luminescent galaxy that hung on his wall in an opulent frame that contrasted with the rawness of the image.

“See this? It’s our Universe. This is where you and I live,” he said as he pointed to a tiny white dot amidst the myriad other sparkling white dots. “Somehow, as if by a miracle, our earth was formed in such a way that life was possible. Lots and lots and lots of conditions had to be in place for our earth to be primed for life. If gravity was just a fraction stronger or weaker, we wouldn’t be here.

“Our Universe is a very queer thing. We have nothing to do but to accept that it’s just one of those things that happen. Your baby is just the same.”

Richard again looked at his wife, but this time her gaze was held steadfast on the doctor.

“Just now you said that this is a unique case – at least here in Manhattan. What did you mean by that?” she asked.

“Who knows if it’s happened elsewhere in the world? Maybe a baby has been delivered tremendously late in a Peruvian village in the past. I’m just musing.”

Months passed. March the ninth came and went without so much as a kick from Christine’s baby. Summer arrived, and the couple went for a scan at the hospital.

“I’m sorry, but the images did not process,” said the nurse as they waited impatiently in the hospital to see the latest black and white prints of their child-to-be. “You won’t be able to take one home. I’m sorry.”

With that, the nurse’s attention quickly turned to her next task.

“But what did the consultant say?” asked Christine, confused. “How’s the baby looking?”

“Fine,” answered the nurse, before gathering together a pile of papers.

Christine and Richard were both struck by the fact that the nurse seemed to be avoiding looking at them. She marched away from her desk with the papers pressed against her bosom. Two sheets slipped free and wafted from side to side in the air before landing on the floor like a parachute. She ignored them and burst through the doors into the next room.

That night, Billy was angry that they hadn’t been able to get a print of their scan.

“How do we even know you’ve got a human baby in there?” he asked with venom.

His wife scorned him for asking such a question, but it had been one he’d been dying to ask for weeks. A few cans of Coors had spurred him on.

He begrudgingly apologised for his outburst but continued to insist it was a semi-legitimate question.

“It’s just so goddamn strange.”

“Queer things happen, Mr Hawkins,” remarked Richard quietly.

The remark inflamed Billy, who turned his anger on his son-in-law. “What did you say? You sick son of a bitch! What’ve you got inside you? Who the fuck are you?”

Billy rose from the table and pointed his knife at Richard. His wife rose too and stopped him from marching towards a frightened Richard. She had to hold him back, as madness got him in its grip.

“You ever have sex with my daughter again and I’ll hang you from the tree in my garden! You’re the Antichrist!” he spat out, chewed pork flying from his mouth.

“Calm down, Billy,” begged his wife, doing her best to calm him.

“He’s the Antichrist,” he repeated to her, his feathers ruffled.

“I know. I know, honey. Come on, sit down.”

Mary got her husband to calm down, but the beast was already out of its cage and everyone at the dinner table was rattled.

Antichrist.

For Richard, the word was the scariest in the dictionary. It was one nobody used lightly. It was suggestive of something supremely diabolical. Indeed, it was loaded with apocalyptic connotations.

The Antichrist was meant to be the most evil person in the metaphysical world who had entered our mortal coil to effectively end humanity, taking the shape of a benevolent soul who was really a False Messiah.

His mother had talked about the Antichrist a lot when he was a young boy. She lived in dread of it, and kept telling Richard that the Antichrist would be coming soon, and that he would set the earth on fire.

The word had its roots in biblical times, but also in medieval times when villagers with lanterns hunted down witches they blamed for the cursed things that were happening to them and their families.

Richard knew now that the staunchly religious but ever so dim Billy thought he was a witch: A demon, an antichrist sent to impregnate a woman with the devil’s spawn.

Not just any woman – his own daughter.

And all because his retarded baby wouldn’t form.

Not longer after the dinner table incident, in which Billy had accused his son-in-law of bringing about the end of the days, Christine was ordered to live with her parents. She agreed immediately, and Richard was left to live alone in the home they had shared for three years as a happy couple.

He prayed to God for guidance each night. He spoke to his mom on the phone to ask if there had been any issues when he was in her womb. Had he remained in there too long? Did he perhaps slither out of her vagina with a few limbs missing? She told him that he had exited her body completely in tact, and asked with genuine concern if he was using drugs again.

He trawled the Internet in a desperate search for answers:

“Very late pregnancies.”

“Half-formed babies.”

“What does it mean when a baby still hasn’t been born.”

There were no answers. The mystery deepened. His guilt was suffocating him. Was he really to blame for the defective infant? Had his promiscuous past ruined a life?

And was Billy right to ask his question: What was inside Christine’s body?

A few days later, Richard was filling up his car when a beefy man wearing a denim jacket and a trucker cap yelled out at him.

“Fucking faggot alien!” cried the man.

It shook Richard up.

The jibes got worse over the next few days, as his neighbours learned of his and Christine’s unusual situation.

Eggs were launched at his window. “Devil” was sprayed on his garage in blood red lettering. Friends began to desert him, cancelling meet-ups out of a fear that he would spit on them and infect them with his alien DNA.

Christine rang to say that she was thinking of getting an abortion.

“Of course I don’t really believe I have a demon inside me,” she said. “But this is taking over my life. I’ve been waiting for this baby to pop for almost two years. I need to move on with my life.”

Richard protested and asked if she would let them have one last consultation with the doctor and nurses about it. “Maybe it’s nearly ready.”

She sobbed on the phone, knowing that a second scan wasn’t needed. Her baby hadn’t grown inside her.

That night, Richard sadly wrote down possible baby names:

Abigail.

Alice.

Luke.

James.

Lucifer.

In the morning, he found out that Billy had died of a heart attack. The man had worked himself into a drunken stupor, raging at Christine’s unborn child to “pop already and give me my fucking grandson and heir!!”. He had goaded it, called it an alien, accused it of “being no grandson of mine” before butting it with his head.

Then, Billy died.

And so it was that Christine, unable to bear it no more, went to arrange to have an abortion. The hospital refused, saying it was well past the termination age that the law would permit.

“Your baby is nearly two years old. We can’t terminate a two-year old,” they told her clinically.

“But it isn’t a baby,” she insisted tearfully. “It’s a thing.”

She began to hate Richard for what he had done to her. She was left to walk around with a  cluster of alien cells inside her that she couldn’t get rid of. After three years, the thing was still there, faintly lashing out every now and then to remind her not to ever forget it.

She and Richard didn’t speak anymore. He had been driven out of his house by his neighbours who burned baby dolls in his porch, set fire to his flowers, and smashed his windows with bricks.

But wherever he went in the town, he was tarnished. Women somehow recognised him and wouldn’t date him. To them, he was either an alien or he wasn’t a real man. He was a sap who couldn’t make proper babies.

They didn’t want to get stuck with an undeveloped baby in their womb for years on end like poor Christine.

He read The Bible more and other ancient prophetic texts to find answers. Had he not been properly redeemed for his past sins? Was he really the Antichrist? Was he in the Book of Revelations? He grew a beard and became more mystical.

As the years passed, Richard moved to a new town. It was still a while before his confidence returned and he felt able to date women again. They didn’t know who he was, and while a part of him was thankful for this, another part of him felt deceitful. He was The Man Who Created Monsters, but they only knew him as Richard the Christian. With them, he had a blank canvas on which to paint pretty pictures of benevolence, warm and healthy sperm.

Eventually, he found love with a church-going woman called Elizabeth. She was a sweet, caring and kind woman who doted on him.

One night, they made love and she became pregnant. She was overjoyed, but he was apprehensive.

Impregnating another woman after Christine had become almost like an obsession for him in recent months. He wanted to prove to himself that it was just “one of those queer things” as Dr Aaron Di Caprio had put it. He wanted to prove to himself that it was just a trick that nature plays on us from time to time.

He likened it to excreting blood. When you excrete blood, you’re desperate to use the toilet again as soon as possible to prove that it was just a one-off, and that your bowels aren’t being torn apart by a tumour. But when you see the blood a second time, you know you’re in trouble.

After a few months, the doctor broke the news to the couple that their baby wasn’t developing properly.

Richard turned ashen. It had been a moment he was dreading, but one that he was hoping wouldn’t come.

Richard knew now that he was in trouble. Elizabeth had taken the news quite well. She was optimistic that the baby would eventually develop. Like Richard, she had great faith in God.

And if it didn’t develop fully, she insisted they would give it whatever life they could. Her reaction was so different to Christine’s that he was astonished.

But Richard was troubled. He knew the reality. Elizabeth was now just another subplot in his personal tragedy. Her life was in ruins.

As he watched her dutifully prepare dinner, he began to cry. She sang a hymn to herself as she lovingly prepared his potatoes. She had no idea what evil had befallen her. Her life was effectively over and she didn’t know it.

“Honey, dinner is ready,” she said with the happiest of smiles that was shaped like the crescent of our moon.

There wasn’t a soft, poor human soul feebly rummaging around inside her tummy. There was an alien that was maliciously cocooning itself.

The guilt of what he had done to his dear Elizabeth was too much, and Richard left home, leaving her a brief note on the dinner table.

“I’m sorry about the baby,” he wrote.

He left her grief stricken. His departure tested her faith.

Richard became a wanderer. Impregnating women became an obsession to him that developed into a full-blown neurosis. He said to himself that he hadn’t been condemned by God for his promiscuous past, nor was he the Antichrist. And he was out to prove it.

He had with all kinds of women. He wasn’t making love like he had with Christine and Elizabeth. He was making babies.

In Denver, he made a baby with a student named Emma. Four months into her pregnancy, she got the news that her baby wasn’t developing properly. She was unable to hand it with the stoic resolve of Elizabeth and became hysterical. For days and weeks she sobbed without control. She had no idea Richard was to blame, or that there were two other women in America who were suffering a similarly disastrous fate.

She fell apart, and Richard couldn’t take it any longer. He left the town and made babies with more women in other towns in a mindless bid to prove that he wasn’t an alien fugitive.

His faith cracked and bled, and he sought refuge in drinking. He impregnated a woman in Michigan and threatened to kill their doctor if he didn’t make their baby form.

“Make it grow limbs or I’ll cut you, I swear to God! I am not the Antichrist!”

At his lowest, he drank half a bottle of whiskey in a barely furnished motel room in San Francisco. It was here that he heard news of Christine’s death. She had taken her own life.

He knew she had been unable to bear her burden anymore.

The death of his wife didn’t affect him, and he continued to impregnate women. Many times he didn’t stick around long enough to find out if the baby was developing properly or not, but whenever he did, he and the mother-to-be were given the devastating news that their infant was retarding in the womb.

His life became a squalor of drink, drugs, guilt and deformed aliens that never saw the light of day, but continued to ferment inside their mothers, mothers who were never able to kiss and hold them.

During a spell in rehab, he was visited by a priest he had never met. He always claimed afterwards that the visit was too mystical to be real. It was a hallucination.

He was told the ultimate truth by the priest. He was told that Christine’s pregnancy had been a test. It was a test that he failed.

“Instead of listening to your heart and what other people were telling you, you became selfish. You weren’t concerned with the welfare of the women you supposedly loved. You cared only about eradicating your own guilty conscience, to prove that you weren’t defective, alien or the Antichrist. You went on the rampage, destroying lives to try and save your own.”

There was no end to his misery. He grew old. His penis became limp. In desperation, he tried to get an erection to impregnate more women, but it was impossible. As he tucked his organ into his trousers and yanked up his zip while a Mississippi prostitute sighed in his motel bed, he thought about what was waiting for him in the world to come.

He thought about his transgressions.

He thought about the women he had ruined.

He thought about all his babies.

He named them.

Rupert.

Margot.

Abigail.

Tom.

Daniel.

Mark.

Christine.

His heart wept.

All of them were trapped. None of them would get a chance to experience the human condition in all its grime and misery.

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Christmas wasn’t promising to be a happy one for Adam. His ex-partner had relocated without giving him her new address, taking their seven-year old daughter with her.

Adam had planned to see his little girl Lucy over Christmas. He wanted to make it up to her after he had been so unreliable throughout the year.

“I can’t keep letting you destroy my plans,” his ex-partner Melissa had told him, after another no-show on one of the weekends he was supposed to be looking after Lucy.

Whether out of malice or exhaustion, Melissa had moved on with her life without telling Adam.

He had turned up to her apartment on a cold November morning to find that she had gone. Nobody he knew was able to tell him her new address, either because she had silenced them or they really didn’t know it. He knew her sister lived nearby, but he didn’t know where.

“Thanks for nothing,” he said haughtily to Melissa’s former neighbour, who he believed was holding something back from him. He looked up and down the road, lit his last cigarette and thought about Lucy. He missed her.

As Christmas drew nearer, he was no closer to finding out Melissa’s address.

“I just wanna see my daughter,” he told his friend Mark over a cup of cheap coffee. “I had everything planned out. This year was really going to be something, you know? I got myself a job finally, a new place and some money at last. I’ve already bought her about ten presents, including one of the latest dolls off the TV.”

Mark had an idea, but he wasn’t sure if it would work or not.

“Be Santa Claus. The mall is looking for a new one, so apply. If Melissa is still living in the city, there’s a good chance she’ll take Lucy to see Santa. She’ll never know it’s you under there.”

For the first time in over a week, the normally reticent Adam allowed himself to smile.

Mark knew he was just being a good friend saying nice things. As far as he was concerned, the perennially unemployable and quick tempered Adam had no chance of being Santa Claus.

By a stroke of good fortune or finesse on Adam’s part, he was installed as the new Santa Claus at the mall within four days. He brought to the role his usual charisma, quick wit, and his natural rapport with kids.

“I want a space ship for Christmas this year, Santa” one boy shyly told him.

“A space ship? You don’t want much do you?” asked Adam with good humour. “I tell you what. Since you’ve got the gall to ask Santa for something as BIG as a space ship, I’m gonna give you something a bit more special. Next year, you and me are gonna deliver the presents on my sleigh together. How does that sound?”

The boys eyes widened. “Is it like a space ship?”

“Oh, heck yes. It’s the mother of all space ships. It can take you to Mars, to Saturn … anywhere you want it to. It’s a magical space ship.”

After two days in the mall, a young blonde girl with big and kindly but sad eyes perched herself on Adam’s lap. It took her a while to answer Adam’s question. She thought it over, and seemed hesitant to respond. And when she did, she asked him:

“Santa, is it okay to ask for something that isn’t a toy?”

“Why, of course it is. You can ask for whatever you want.”

“Santa, can I see my daddy this Christmas?” she asked quietly.

Adam looked over at the girls mother who was smiling.

“He’s gone away,” said the girl, embarrassed.

Adam’s heart sunk. He looked into the girls eyes.

“Of course,” he said hoarsely.

After a week at the mall, and with only five shopping days until Christmas, Adam was losing his optimism about seeing his daughter at Christmas.

His landlord reminded him that he was behind with the rent, and Adam got drunk.

Working hungover as Santa Claus was difficult. Whether his senses had been derailed by the lingering alcohol in his blood, or whether there was something in the air, the fact was that the kids all seemed more hyper than usual as he struggled with nausea and a headache.

“I want a pony, Santa. And a HUGE doll house with lots of dolls. Both boy and girl dolls, of course. And a car to drive them to work and back. And, oh, can we also have an Eminem CD for my brother?” asked a particularly excited young rosy-cheeked girl.

“One present to each child,” Adam said wearily.

“But, Santa, you don’t understand. I need all these things.”

“And I need a beer, but life isn’t fair okay?”

Adam immediately regretted his terse attitude.

Later in the day, the young girl who had asked to see her dad this Christmas sat herself on his lap again.

“I’m sorry for asking for something you couldn’t give me last week,” she said with a level of maturity that shocked Adam. “I know you’re not the real Santa Claus, and I know it was wrong of me to put so much pressure on you. You’re just a regular guy with a regular job who has his own problems. It’s just that I’d like to believe in magic and miracles, and I really would like to see my daddy this Christmas. But I want to say sorry. If you’d let me, I’d like to ask for a pencil this Christmas, and some paper. I’d like to draw something.”

“Don’t ever be sorry for wanting to believe in magic and miracles,” whispered Adam, whose soul had been profoundly moved. “I am Santa Claus, and there is magic in the world. Never let anyone tell you there isn’t. Miracles happen. I know that it sometimes seems like they don’t, but they’re happening all the time. Always believe.”

He saw the girl cover her nose momentarily. He sensed that she was as politely as possible trying to shield herself from the alcohol on his breath. He remembered the first time Lucy had seen him drunk. He felt covered in shame again.

“It’s okay,” she said softly to him. He felt his face redden.

She gazed up at him searchingly. He could feel a lump in his throat, and felt vulnerable before this innocent, bright young girl. It was as though she was able to read his thoughts.

That night, he turned his friend down when he was asked to go out for a drink. He stayed inside the gloom of his flat, and looked at the presents he had bought for his daughter.

He remembered the girl and what he said said to her, to believe in magic and miracles.

Enlivened by the image of the girls angelic face and her humble request, he bought some decorations and Christmas lights from a local store and hung them up in preparation for when Lucy came over. The only thing now missing was a tree. He bought a small one after work the next day.

“Well, if she doesn’t come to the mall, I’ll just have to find her,” he told Mark.

“Christmas drinks first, though?”

Adam turned him down, saying he needed to be sober.

“If I had Christmas drinks with you, I wouldn’t wake up until Easter.”

He was still in hight spirits the next day at the mall, and chirpily granted many children their wishes. But as closing time arrived with just one shopping day left before Christmas, he began to feel as though the game was up.

He trudged home forlornly.

Outside his flat, he bumped into Melissa’s sister. She explained to him that Melissa had moved with Lucy to Los Angeles. The news struck him like a blizzard.

“I can’t get to Los Angeles for Christmas, she knows that. Why would she take Lucy over there?”

“Well, you weren’t around last Christmas or the one before that,” replied Emily without a hint of sympathy. “So, I guess she figured she’d do something she’s always wanted to do without putting you first for once. You had your chance.”

“Things have changed. I’m a different person now, a better one. I had to get my life together. I’ve done that. I’ve bought presents, got a flat where Lucy can stay in her own room. I’ve got a job.”

“As Santa? Well, I guess it’s a step up from working as an elf like last year. Was that what sealed the deal for your new employers?”

“Fuck you, Emily!”

“See you around,” she said as she walked away.

Adam was left bereft. He clutched his Santa hat in his hand, dangling it by his side.

The next day was Christmas Eve. Adam had slept in his Santa outfit and woke up late.

A bright red envelope had been pushed through the letterbox. It was addressed to Santa.

Adam opened it slowly with curiosity.

Inside was a pastel drawing filled with colour. It was the work of a young child; technically poor but wondrously imaginative. It depicted a man holding his daughters hand. Above them was a big yellow sun. To the left were the letters ‘LA’.

There was a handwritten letter in the envelope, too. It read:

“Dear Santa. I watched you last night. I know times are hard right now. But remember that the world is filled with magic and miracles. If you believe, you will achieve your dreams next year. There is still time. Love, Madeleine.”

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The Things That Scare Us

Nola saw him at fifteen minutes past four, as the weary sun was barely blinking any longer through the trees that lined the streets as it sank ever lower into its waiting bed, ready to make way for the black night.

He was trudging along in the snow with a cocksure swagger, his hands dug firmly into his jacket pockets.

The clown mask scared Nola, as it did each time the stranger wore it.

A mask that was at odds with it surroundings – the snow-sprinkled picket fences and cream-coloured houses that kept the respectable community safe.

On and on he charged, wet snow sticking to his boots.

“Why does he wear that mask?” asked Jason, Nola’s boyfriend who had joined her at the window.

She didn’t answer, but continued to watch.

The clown turned his head towards Nola and Jason as he passed their house.

Jason waved and grinned.

Nola grabbed his hand and pulled it down.

“What are you doing?” she asked, furious.

“I’m clowning around,” answered Jason, not taking her seriously. “What’s the matter with you?”

Nola looked out of the window. The clown had disappeared out of sight. She felt a deadly chill run down her spine like a spider on fire.

“She’s dead as fuck,” explained Detective Curtis coldly and bluntly as he crouched down to observe the dead body that lay on the pavement.

“Dead as fuck?” asked his partner, Detective Michaels.

The detective shrugged his shoulders and shoved more of his burger into his mouth before chomping. His colleague winced at the sight of the bit of electric green lettuce that was dangling out of Curtis’ mouth like a paralysed insects leg.

“Brain battered to bits,” continued Curtis in an insolent, matter of fact tone that he knew upset Michaels. “The killer had a fucking field day.”

True enough, the victim’s head had been bludgeoned beyond all recognition.

Blood had coloured the off-white snow, creating an intense contrast.

“Looks kinda beautiful,” observed Curtis with a smile. He pulled his belt up over his sagging stomach.

Nola was watching the crime scene from her window.

The dead woman had been found just an hour earlier, seemingly killed in the middle of the street on the crystal clear blue afternoon. Nola hadn’t seen it, but she had heard the screams while she was in the shower.

The crumpled body lay just a few yards from her house. It was the third that had been found in the exact same spot in the space of just three weeks.

“Why won’t you admit we have a serial killer on our hands?” she asked Jason that night over dinner.

“Three murders and you get hysterical,” he said before drinking some juice. “You women are all the same. Bit of blood and, bam! you say it’s a serial killer.”

After dinner, he put his jacket on and left the house to catch the NBA game. Nola didn’t want him to go.

She tossed and turned in bed uncomfortably that night. Jason returned at a few minutes past one in the morning, bestirring her with his carelessness. He clattered into the bedside table.

“You’re late,” she whispered in the dark as he changed his clothes.

He didn’t answer. Nola assumed he hadn’t heard her.

He got into bed and fell asleep before her.

When Nola woke in the morning, a thick mist greeted her through the window. Jason had evidently risen early and thrust open the curtains.

As she made breakfast in the kitchen, a forceful knock at the door tore through the house like  a scream.

“Nola Hampton?” asked Detective Curtis as she timidly opened the door. She was disgusted by the fact that he was eating a cheeseburger as he spoke to her.

She nodded.

“Nola, I’m afraid me and my partner Detective Michaels – I’m Detective Curtis by the way, perhaps you’ve seen me on the TV – have some bad news for you.”

He coughed, which Nola thought was odd.

Michaels was looking sorrowfully into Nola’s eyes. It moved her. He had sad eyes.

“What is it?” she asked, her bottom lip quivering.

“We found your boyfriend’s body last night. I’m sorry.”

“What?”

It was explained to her that Jason hadn’t even made it to the NBA game. He must have been murdered not two minutes after leaving the house. His body was found on her street.

When she explained that it was impossible, and that she had slept in bed with him last night, Curtis suggested that was an apparition. It wasn’t Jason who got into bed with her – he was already in the morgue.

An icy chill rippled through her body in gushing waves.

She demanded to see the body.

When she saw it, she was able to confirm to herself that it was Jason.

She asked what the specks of yellow on his forehead were. Curtis apologised for getting mustard on her former lover’s face.

Two days later, Nola was looking at the street from her window when, at just after four in the darkening afternoon, the man in the clown mask strode determinedly past in the glistening snow.

Fear enwrapped her. As far as she was concerned, he was the killer.

As he walked by her house, he stopped and turned to face her. He lingered for all of ten seconds before somewhat reluctantly continuing on his way.

Over the next few weeks, twenty-five more people were murdered on Nola’s street – at least, they were murdered somewhere and then dumped on her street like unwanted trash. But still no one was ready to admit that a serial killer was on the loose.

What was stranger still, no one had witnessed anything.

Detective Curtis confessed to Michaels that they still had no leads.

“I don’t deny that it’s a bit funny,” said Nola’s friend Catherine over coffee. “But I haven’t really thought about it too much.”

Nola was horrified by her friends lack of a reaction.

“How can you not think about it?” she protested. “There have been thirty-one murders taken place on our street. What is there not to think about?”

“Oh, honey. If we let every little thing bring us down, we’d never get anything done. We’d never leave the house.”

There were more murders. Nola realised that the already small population of the town was noticeably thinning. The coffee shop was practically deserted. The usual customers had mostly been killed off.

The church was closed because the priest had been disembowelled.

Nola spoke to the police liaison officer, who had been assigned to her to help her come to terms with her grief regarding Jason’s butchering, about the man in the clown mask who walked up her street every night, haunting and tormenting her.

“Kids,” he said with the flicker of a smile and a shake of his head. “What are they like?”

“I think he has something to do with the murders,” she said firmly.

“Well, he shouldn’t be too hard to spot in an identity parade, right?” he said jovially with another flicker of a smile. “See you next week, Nola.”

He rose in good spirits and left Nola to her scary thoughts.

That night, her street was eerily dark and she was very cold. Before midnight, every single interior house light in her line of vision was off. Had every resident but her been killed off? Was no one left at home?

As she looked out of her bedroom window, filled with mortal fear and thinking morosely about the man in the clown mask, a yellow light twinkled from the bedroom of the house opposite her. It felt good to know that she wasn’t the only living soul left on the street.

For the first time in weeks, a warm smile appeared on her face and she felt like bursting into tears of joy and relief. She wanted to wave at this kindred spirit, this fellow survivor, this newfound friend amid the strangeness of the events that had visited their little town.

Seconds later, the light was extinguished. Again, the street felt oddly lifeless, like a dream. It was enraptured by a soul-stirring darkness. Even the moon was invisible tonight. It was a harrowing nocturnal vision that was set out before her.

A disturbing evil had passed over the town. Nola could feel it, even if no one else could.

She woke up at ten minutes past two in the morning. Something had disturbed her. It was a figure, taking off its clothes in her room.

All she could make out was the well-built, masculine shape in the quiet darkness. It moved    around slowly, carefully, so as not to make too much of a noise.

It got into bed beside her and turned onto its side, its back facing her. So nonchalant.

Nola was as still as a corpse, her bug-like eyes frozen with dread.

The next day, she confided to Catherine about what had been happening to her recently: The man in the clown mask and the figure who had on two occasions got into bed with her.

“You’re letting these killings get to you,” said Catherine cooly. “Whenever I think about them, I do a puzzle to take my mind off things.”

“You’re insane,” seethed Nola, her eyes inflamed with frustration. “There have been thirty-one murders on our street in two months, and two-hundred and two in the whole town.”

Catherine was taken aback by her friends reaction and suggested she see her therapist.

“Dr Finkelstein is a very talented man. He comforted me after my dad’s death. It turned out that my OCD is directly related to grief.”

She wrote down the number on Nola’s shopping list after ‘garden peas’, tore it from the notepad to the accompaniment of a shrill noise, and handed it over.

Nola went to see Dr Finkelstein. He was a curious fellow of below-average height, who told her that the clown was an apparition, as was the man who had got into bed with her.

She knew better. She had had felt the bed sink when he clambered aboard. She had heard him snore. She knew that someone was physically in the room with her.

“Do apparitions snore? Do apparitions have catarrh?” she asked.

Finkelstein eyed her with curiosity before prescribing her some pills.

“Aren’t you scared by all these killings?” she asked imploringly, desperate for a crumb of solidarity from someone. “Don’t you worry that you might be next?”

Finkelstein looked offended by her tone.

“Take the pills,” he said quietly but firmly.

She was bereft.

That night, unable to sleep, she looked out of her bedroom window. The sky was starless. God wasn’t able to see whatever was going to happen. And she sensed that on this earthly stage, something was going to happen to her tonight.

Not a single interior house light but hers was on. The ghostly white snow was her only comfort, but the mark of the clown’s bootprints tainted it. They were prints of evil.

Things were so unforgivingly silent that she could hear the whirr of the street lamps.

The bedroom opposite hers suddenly became swamped in a dazzling light. She was happy to know that she wasn’t alone on the street.

A figure approached the window opposite. Nola blinked and looked harder. The figure was wearing the clown mask.

A scream ran through her body but couldn’t escape.

The clown closed the curtains. She watched its silhouette move around the room, like a phantom.

That night, she lay awake in bed, waiting for the figure to join her again.

Only, it never appeared this time.

Over the next few days, there were no fresh murders. But Nola felt all the time that she was next.

She watched as the clown mowed the lawn opposite her house.

She watched as the clown washed the car.

She watched as the clown collected the mail.

She and the clown were the only ones living on the street. Everyone else had either been chopped up or had moved out.

She demanded answers from the police. Were they any nearer to catching the serial killer? Weren’t they going to do something about the clown who has squatting in the house opposite hers?

“Hey, lady, calm the fuck down,” said Detective Curtis, who didn’t appreciate her tone. “We got a million and one cases to solve. You think we’ve got time to go chasing some circus clowns? We’re on it. Okay?”

The truth was that Curtis’ inability to catch the killer had left him depressed. He hadn’t had sex with his wife for over a month because of impotency.

Nola returned home and found the clown sat in her living room.

The television wasn’t on.

She assumed it wanted to get to know its new neighbour, but it said not a word.

It was sat in silence, its hands gripping the chair arms, its feet tapping the floor.

That night, the clown showered. It slept in the spare room. Nola was powerless to do anything. She waited for it to return across the road, but it didn’t.

In the morning, while the clown was doing its laundry in the kitchen, bare chested but its mask still on, Nola looked out of the window, feeling like a prisoner. The outside world felt as far away as Heaven.

A man in a clown mask walked past the window. Not quickly, but slowly. As though he hadn’t a care in the world. Nola noticed that his jacket and jeans were smeared with blood.

Chilled to the bone, she turned around to see the clown still loading up the washing machine with its black jacket and faded blue jeans.

When she returned her gaze to the window, the other clown was sloping out of sight, leaving a trail of boot prints in the snow, the way a snail leaves behind its slime.

From that moment on, clowns became a constant presence in her life.

Besides the first clown, a second one moved into her attic.

Eventually, a third started sleeping on her sofa.

She changed the locks on the door, informed the police, but still more got in.

“I’m powerless to help,” said Curtis.

None of the clowns spoke English. They all grunted by way of communication, but appeared to understand one another.

They sometimes hung their jackets up in the hallway stained with blood.

Masked people moved into each house on Nola’s street.

They took over the town’s jobs.

Nola was served coffee by a boy or a girl wearing a Frankenstein’s monster mask that touched her left breast when handing over the sugar.

It wasn’t long before Detective Curtis was replaced by a man wearing a werewolf mask.

Detective Michaels was replaced by a man wearing a Marilyn Monroe mask.

Nola felt unable to move out, despite her world now being so alien to her. She put up with it. As sick as it made her feel, she even allowed herself to eat dinner at the kitchen table with the clowns.

Eventually, she was impregnated by one of them.

She took to wearing a mask herself. It helped her to blend in.

Over time, there were twenty-six people living in her house alongside her. They jostled for space on the floor, slept on top of each other. The conditions were cramped, noisy, and vile.

They took showers together to save on water.

It was shameless.

 

 

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The Sister

“Jane’s gonna go dressed as a clown because she already looks like a clown,” said Matthew, before sticking his tongue out and laughing.

“Well, you’re the one dating the clown, so the joke’s on you, loser,” retorted Jane.

“Ouch,” said Matthew, faking offence. He clutched his heart.

“Seriously, are you coming to the party tonight or not, Erin?” asked Jane.

Erin, who had otherwise been ignoring the excited antics of her classmates as they lingered around campus in the late autumnal sunshine after college, was shook from her thoughts at the sound of her name. She had been thinking about her younger sister, who had died a year ago today. Today was Halloween.

“Erin?” repeated Jane.

Matthew and the rest of the group of friends stopped fooling around for a second and looked at Erin.

“A party would do you good,” insisted Jane. “Won’t it, Matthew?”

“Yeah, come,” said Matthew. “We’ll have drinks and food. Jane will provide the horrifying entertainment. It’ll be cool.”

“You’re coming aren’t you, Travis?” asked Jane.

Travis, like Erin, had been distracted by something else. He was sat with the group but looked distant.

“Travis?” repeated Jane.

“Sorry guys. I was just thinking about … you know.”

Jane looked at Erin and then at Matthew who shook his shoulders.

“Travis, what are you talking about?” asked Jane.

“Tonight is Halloween.”

“No shit. That’s why we’re having a party, Einstein.”

“You know all about the legend of the suited man, don’t you?” asked Travis haughtily.

Jane rolled her eyes. “Not this again.”

“It’s real I’m telling you!” insisted Travis, spit flying out of his mouth.

Nobody took Travis seriously whenever he brought up the legend of the suited man. According to local tradition, if anyone spots a man dressed in a grey suit holding a briefcase who is just staring straight into their eyes, it means they will meet their end that night, on October 31st. Few believed in it – but Travis did.

“It’s a stupid superstition,” said Erin. “Nobody is seriously dumb enough to believe it.”

“It’s not stupid!” bellowed Travis before standing up, a look of pure terror in his eyes. “I just hope and pray that none of you guys spot him on your way home tonight. That’s all I can say.”

Travis grabbed his jacket.

“Hey, Travis has given me an idea,” said Matthew. “You know who I might go to the party dressed as tonight? The suited man! I’m gonna kill all of you in one go! One stare at me and bam! You’re all dead.”

Matthew fell backwards in a fit of giggles.

“Oh my God, you are such a loser,” said Jane, smiling unwillingly.

“You know what, Matthew? Ha-ha. Laugh all you want,” said Travis sternly. “I just hope you make it out alive tonight.”

With that, Travis stormed off, looking left and right like a terrified animal.

The group watched him.

“Lunatic 101,” said Jane.

“Oh my God, Jane, don’t look to your left right now, for there is a SUITED MAN OH MY GOD,” said Matthew dramatically, before standing up and running away screaming.

Jane couldn’t help but laugh. “Loser,” she muttered underneath her breath.

Erin rose and slung her rucksack over her shoulders.

“So, we’ll see you tonight?” asked Jane hopefully.

“Probably not.”

Erin walked away, leaving the group of friends to look at each other with both puzzlement and concern.

“What’s up with her?” asked Josh.

“You know what tonight is, don’t you?” asked Jane. “It’s a year ago since her eight-year-old sister died. Erin still blames herself for her sister’s death.”

“Oh, come on. That was a year ago.”

“People don’t just get over the death of their sister in twelve months, ass hole.”

On the bus ride home from college, Erin was left with her thoughts. Yes, she blamed herself for her sister’s tragic death. She knew she shouldn’t have left her alone for any time. She certainly shouldn’t have gone to the store while dinner was cooking.

Everyone had told her it wasn’t her fault. Her mom and dad lay no blame on her. But she blamed herself, and that’s all that mattered.

The rumble of the bus’ engines were soothing Erin, and she was enjoying watching the last golden rays of the sun as it said goodbye for the day.

Halloween had always been a day of fun and festivities for Erin. But she felt as though, for her, the scares were no longer a bit of fun. They were very real.

“What’s up, babe?” asked Freddy, her classmate who was sat behind her. He had decided to poke his leering face over her seat. She could feel his breath on her head.

“Not much,” she muttered. She wasn’t in the mood to talk to Freddy.

“Hey, how come you never wanna date me?” he asked. “I mean, I always thought the reason was that you were always in a relationship but even now that you’re single you don’t wanna date me. How come?”

Erin sighed.

“I don’t know. Maybe because you’re weird?”

There was a pause. Erin suddenly felt bad for what she said. She heard Freddy sink back into his seat. He was a nice guy, but he was weird.

As the bus paused at a set of traffic lights, Erin watched a group of giddy schoolchildren cross the road. Two small boys wearing scary masks were chasing screaming girls. Erin smiled. She spotted a young, dark-haired girl crossing the road by herself. Hands entrenched in her brown jacket pocket, she looked isolated from everyone else. With her hair in pigtails, she looked like Erin’s sister. Her head was bowed, so Erin couldn’t get a good look, but she could have sworn it looked just like her.

As the bus slowly began to pull away from the lights, another sight disturbed her even more: She spotted a man dressed in a grey suit who was holding a black briefcase. He was staring right at her. She met his icy, impersonal gaze with her own fearful one. Alarmed, she jumped up in her seat and asked Freddy if he could see the man.

“Where? Where?” asked Freddy.

“Just there, by the lights!”

The bus had pulled too far away, and Freddy – who had no idea where he was supposed to be looking or what he was supposed to looking at – couldn’t see the suited man.

Erin, who didn’t believe in stupid superstitions, felt a chill run down her spine.

“Don’t tell me you think you saw the suited man?” asked Freddy.

“What? No. Of course not.”

Erin sat back in her seat, not quite sure of what she had just seen.

By the time Erin had returned home and started dinner, it was 6.30PM and darkness had fallen. The first trick or treaters had already called, and she was bemoaning the fact that her parents were away tonight, leaving her to answer each time the doorbell rang sharply. Her parents had invited her to join them at their log cabin, but she had declined because of college.

“Honey, I’m sure your college will understand if you miss just two days. Especially after what happened,” said her mom. But Erin was insistent. She didn’t want to be someone who just ran away from her responsibilities because of something that had happened in the past.

But as her spaghetti boiled away in the pan and her tomato sauce bubbled fiercely from the heat, she was beginning to feel the stress. The doorbell sounded again.

“Trick or treat!” wailed three kids at her door. There was a fourth, a girl with pigtails who Erin recognised from the crossing earlier. This girl didn’t say anything; she just stared at Erin, as though questioningly.

“My, haven’t you guys got some great costumes,” said Erin with a smile as she handed out candy to the delighted children. She took another look at the sullen girl with the pigtails who was like an outcast. “And here’s some candy for you,” she said.

The girl didn’t take it, but slowly turned and followed her friends as they skipped down the concrete steps, excitedly talking about what Erin had just given them.

“Mine’s gold!” boasted the boy.

Back inside, Erin finished cooking her dinner and ate it in front of the television. She checked her phone, which had been on silent. Jane had texted to ask if she was coming to the party, while Travis had called. Seeing Travis’ name reminded her of the man in the grey suit with the briefcase who had stared at her from the pavement. She didn’t for one moment believe in the silly superstition that if you see this man on Halloween, you die that night. But as she sat alone in the house, a shiver ran down her spine.

She shook the thought from her head. Of course, the legend wasn’t true. That was precisely why it was only a legend – because it wasn’t true. No one had ever been able to accurately verify that folk who died on Halloween in the town had seen the man in the grey suit with a briefcase beforehand; it was just a spooky invention that someone down the years had come up with to explain the unusual number of deaths in the local area on October 31st. People need an imaginative explanation for that strikes them as otherwise unusual. It’s human nature.

As 10pm approached, Jane texted again to ask where Erin was. Erin was about to reply when she heard a disturbance in the back yard. It sounded like a trash can had been struck by something. Tentatively, she entered the kitchen, switched off the light and peered through the window into the yard. All she could see were black shapes. The brilliant white moon was shining in all its fullness, but it was the only thing she could clearly identify. Everything else was just a formless shape.

Back in the living room, Erin was startled to find her TV had switched itself off while she was away. Or had it? She couldn’t remember if she had been been watching TV or not. Part of her was sure that she hadn’t, but part of her was doubting herself. She looked out of the front window. No one was around. The street was quiet. The lamplights shone dimly, but all the trick or treaters had now gone home.

She looked at her phone and thought about calling Jane. She felt it was too late now for a party, but maybe getting out of the house was a good idea.

When she picked up her phone, however, she decided to call Travis.

“Yeah?” answered Travis. Loud music was playing in the background, and Erin could barely hear him.

“Where are you?” asked Erin.

“At Mikey’s party, of course! Hey, you coming? I tried ringing you like an hour ago. Freddy is here.”

“Travis, I saw the man in the suit earlier.”

“What?” asked Travis, as though he had no idea what Erin was talking about.

“The man in the grey suit you were talking about earlier. With the briefcase? I saw him.”

“One second.”

Travis took the phone into a quiet room.

“Erin, what do you mean you saw the suited man earlier? Are you fucking kidding me?”

“No, I’m not,” said Erin nervously. Her voice was quivering. “He was standing on the pavement as I was sat on the bus. He just stared at me.”

“Jesus.”

Travis sounded genuinely alarmed.

“I always said I don’t believe in this stuff – and I don’t – but, like, I’m feeling really vulnerable right now.”

“Erin, come to the party. Come right over.”

Erin thought about it for a second, and then decided that it was the right thing to do.

“Okay, I’ll come. What’s the address? … Travis?”

The line had gone dead.

Erin checked her phone – her battery had died.

For the next twenty minutes, Erin tore up the house trying to track down her phone charger but it was all to no avail. She couldn’t find it, and because her laptop had given up the ghost over a month ago, she had no means of contacting anyone. Without Mikey’s address, there would be no party for her.

“Shit!”

It was near to midnight when a knock on the door awoke Erin from her snooze on the sofa. At first, she wasn’t sure whether the knock had been in her dream, or had come from the television or the door. A second knock confirmed it had come from the door. But why hadn’t they used the bell?

She got up and, feeling disoriented from being awoken suddenly, had to steady herself by holding onto the sofa arm.

She opened the door to find the small girl with the pigtails looking up at her with a sullen expression.

“What the … Yes?” asked Erin. “My gosh, what time is it? Why are you out so late?”

“I’ve come for my treat,” said the girl.

“What treat?”

“You didn’t give me one earlier, so I’ve come for my treat.”

“Do you know what time is it?”

The girl stared coldly into Erin’s eyes.

“Okay, I’ll … I’ll go and get your treat,” said Erin, not quite sure what the heck was happening.

She fumbled around in the kitchen for the candy before finding some in a cupboard. She made her way back to the front door, but found that it was closed. Tentatively, she walked quietly towards it, and then opened it slowly. The girl wasn’t there. She heard the noise of distant sirens, but could see nobody around. She closed the door and locked it.

Once back in the living room, she shuddered and looked at the candy in her palm. It had melted and turned black and hard, as though it had been burnt. Erin let out a yelp and dropped the candy onto the floor. Looking at the palm of her hand, she saw a scarlet red mark.

“This night is getting too freaky,” she said to herself, before resolving that it was time for bed.

But as she began to make her way up the staircase, there was a knock at the door. Erin paused and cussed. Turning back, she unlocked the door and opened it. The small girl with the pigtails was standing there again, a look of fury on her face.

“I said I want my fucking treat!” she said harshly.

“Okay, who on earth are you?” asked Erin, tears welling up in her eyes. “Where are your parents? What are you doing out at this time of the night?”

“Where is my fucking treat?” asked the girl through clenched teeth.

Erin, feeling a sense of rage and frustration overcome her, raced into the kitchen, grabbed a handful of candy, and raced back to the door. But when she got there, it was again closed. This time, however, the girl was inside the house, and she was holding hands with a man dressed in a grey suit who was holding a briefcase.

The girl pointed to Erin.

That’s her.”

The man nodded. The pair began to slowly walk towards Erin.

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Akercocke Live In Manchester: 09.10.2016

 

Halloween came early to Manchester this year, when so-called devil worshippers Akercocke returned after a five-year absence to curse the city once again … 

Akercocke sold their soul to the devil two decades ago. It’s really the only way to explain why this mischievous lot have been head and shoulders above everyone else in the death metal scene since they were summoned from the abyss in 1997.

They are the quintessential English trouble makers, a throwback to 19th century gothic art and Hammer Horror movies where the villain is well-dressed, charming, and has impeccable manners. Indeed, you can just picture chief songwriter Jason Mendonca dipping his quill in blood and sipping on a glass of hundred-year-old French wine as he writes the kind of sinister lyrics and music that have defaced some of extreme metal’s foulest albums since their debut on Peaceville Records in 2001.

Akercocke know that any monkey can write basic death metal, but it takes craft to come up with an actual piece of art that is much more than just another death metal song. Mixing relentless speed with atmospherics, insanely catchy hooks and occult lyrics, they’re a band who write epic songs which twist one way and then another.

Their songs tell stories; they take you on a journey down a very dark lane at night. You don’t quite know where the lane is going to end up, but there’ll be a remote, lighted farm house that beckons you, leaving you with a rather hairy decision to make. You’re hungry, thirsty and lost: do you knock on the door and disturb the inhabitants at such an ungodly hour?

The band has always been somewhat shrouded in mystery. Despite their willingness in interviews to discuss a variety of topics, from their music to what makes the perfect cup of tea to what it is to be an English gentleman, you cannot make the kind of music Akercocke create without at least a thin coat of London fog masking your true reality. Moreover, being self-proclaimed satanists only further heightens the sense of mystery and intrigue that surrounds this English metal institution. Do they actually worship the devil, or are they just trolling us? Whatever the answers are, they leave you curious to know more, even if you try your hardest to stay away from the dark arts.

And things got really mysterious a few years back when, after touring in 2011, they vanished like a spectre that had done its deeds. Following a period of inactivity, their website was taken down, and it seemed as though Akercocke would be nevermore. Rumours that they had returned to the fiery furnace below abated.

But fear not, because everyone’s favourite satanic English gents are back, and as Mendonca told the crowd in Manchester last night, “it’s been too bloody long.” Yes, sir! It has!

They are no longer attired in elegant cloaks in 2016. No longer do they command their audience to “praise Satan.” Such tomfoolery seems to be in the past. This is now just a well-oiled metal band who appear happy to be back. They are here to rock and re-connect with their fans through their love of music.

Their imagery – which the band have always insisted doesn’t actually mean as much to them as we all seem to think it does – has also changed. They have disrobed their saville row suits, with singer Mendonca opting to enter the stage with his naked breasts exposed like Lucifer incarnate. A crazed glint in his eyes, he emitted a cacophonous laugh before himself and his acolytes maniacally launched into opener Sephiroth Rising. It was quickly followed by a faultless rendition of Hell, after which Mendonca greeted the black-clad vagrants gathered before him with good humour.

A chilly, star-studded sunday night in October was the perfect theatrical setting for Akercocke’s atmospherics. They’re very much a band for the witching hour. It’s the kind of music that combines elegantly with the frosty impermanence of the colder seasons to invoke a sense of dark wonderment in your soul. You just can’t imagine these guys even existing in the summer.

The first half of the set was largely made up of cuts from their first two albums. These are songs soaked in dark atmosphere, but they lack the lavish details of their later works. Where their early music is more like a macabre Poe short story focused on a single theme, their later music is Dostoevsky-esque; expansive, ambitious, penetrative, ensemble pieces that are also icily chilling. It was really with the release of third album Choronzon that the band started to introduce more melodies and catchy – but always sinister – vocal hooks. It gave their music more depth.

The band really hit a stride last night when they introduced new cut Inner Sanctum halfway through. “This one is about rebuilding after things have gone wrong. Remember, whatever goes wrong inside your head can always be fixed,” Mendonca told the crowd in what was an unexpected affirmation.

From Inner Sanctum onwards, the band plundered their most recent albums for some real powerhouse classics. Verdelet was followed by the absolutely savage The Dark Inside, which was followed by the stomp of Leviathan. Finally, the crowd was losing its mind in a frenzy of death metal, sweat and seizure-inducing lighting. It was mayhem.

Disappointingly, Akercocke chose not to perform My Apterous Angel, which is arguably their finest song. Shelter From The Sand would have been warmly received, too. But it’s fair to say that, as I made my way up a chilly Oxford Road after the gig, I was well pleased that my good friend and I had been among the vagrants who had turned up to this particularly frightful autumnal gathering.

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Flesh – A Bacchanalian Tale Of Paranoia

Flesh – A Bacchanalian Tale Of Paranoia 

“She looked like a blue orchard on a hot summer’s day with that blue dress that clung to her body that was shaped like the ripest aubergine, with chestnut hair, GODDAMN!” screamed Garrett, rising from the sofa with his glass of whiskey. In a volcanic fury, he launched the glass against the wall. It splintered. Brown liquid slithered rapidly down the mauve wallpaper like blood in a murder house.

“Dammit!”

He ran his hands through his thick, curly, dirty blonde hair and thought about the girl he couldn’t have.

He was unable to control himself any longer. His town was under orders not to make love with anyone while the government tried to bring the relentless balsa virus under control.

The balsa virus was serious stuff; transferred by bodily fluids, it turned people into raving lunatics whose mission it became to destroy every living thing around them. A grandmother had been the first to show signs of the disease eight months ago. After she had strangled her cat, set fire to her husband’s beard and tried to throttle the mail man, the local authorities knew something sinister was at play.

She was found with a handgun in the mall, her face peppered with craters, lumps and hideous boils that were spurting pus like a volcanic eruption.

Garrett, a self-styled womaniser, sex addict and hurricane of bacchic energy, hadn’t touched a girl for six months.

“I cannot take this much more,” he said to his friend Leroy. “I’m sorry that I’ve just redecorated your living room, but I’m at breaking point.”

Leroy nodded sadly. He wanted to mop up the mess. But he wasn’t sure that his friend was done.

Garrett inhaled and exhaled like a sex-starved lion. His life had been a zoetrope of bed hopping and wonky values.

“I can’t take it,” he said, tears in his eyes. “I can’t.”

Leroy thought this was it, his friend was going to kill himself this time. It had always been his thought that Garrett would one day kill himself.

“Dad, how do you do it?” Garrett asked the next morning over eggs, mining for empathy, digging for inspiration to help him get through this. “How are you keeping your hands off mom?”

“Have you seen your mother lately?” replied his dad with a cheeky smile. Humour was Garrett’s dads way of dealing with things. It always had been.

Garrett toiled all day on the building site. The days when his buddies wolf-whistled at the porcelain girls that passed them were over. Nobody had the desire to do it anymore. Nobody could see an end in sight to the masturbatory limbo they had been forced to enter.

“This doesn’t make any goddamn sense no more if you ask me,” said Garrett to his work buddies as they ate their lunch in the searing heat.

He missed the undulations of pillow talk.

He missed kissing a girls’ pebble-like toes.

He missed a girls’ cosmic jazz singing to him as they swayed under the silvery light of the moon.

He missed losing his mind in their eyes, getting caught by their dad who returned early from a vacation, euphoria, energy, passion, torn blonde hair on his bed sheets, bodies full of heavenly promise, moist gazes, ballerina heels, emerald earrings on his tongue, a kaleidoscope of butterflies in his abdomen.

He missed their devotion to him.

“This don’t make sense no more. Six months? How the fuck haven’t they contained this goddamn virus? Who the fuck is in charge of this country? Bunch of useless pricks if you ask me. How many times have I gotta spank my monkey? For Christ’s sake.”

“Garrett. Stop talking,” said a builder older than him. “We’ve all had enough of your whining.”

“Yeah, boy. Quit yo jibber-jabbing.”

Garrett shook his head.

“Sexless freaks.”

The truth was that his buddies had been left beaten after six months of deprivation and had no more to give. Hal, relieved of his patriarchal role, had seen his wife replace the need for sex with a need for stimulating conversation. No longer able to satisfy her, he had to watch as she moved in with a mathematician.

“Perhaps one day, when this crisis is over, and I need a man and not a mind anymore, I’ll return,” she had told him before going off to discuss numbers in the library with Tristan.

Garrett had thought about taking the risk of hooking up and just seeing what would happen. But he hadn’t met a woman who was as willing as he was.

“Come on, baby. We’ll be like Romeo and Juliet,” he cooed in the ear of one girl. “I’ll die first and then you can follow me. We’ll go to heaven together. They say it’s worse for the man. Our balls shrivel and then explode. You just fall asleep after maybe killing one or two people. I got the bum deal here. I’m the one who’ll have a goddamn forest fire down there while trying to cannibalise the populace.”

She knew Garrett. She knew he was just trying to get into her pants. She said he might already have the balsa virus for all she knew.

“I don’t want to die,” she said sadly.

“Do I look like I have balsa, goddammit? Look at my skin, look at it. It’s fucking beautiful. My arms have never been better. You don’t know what you’re missing.”

He returned home from the building site and made a decision to go to Leroy’s that evening. Still at breaking point, he was going to once and for all suggest they both try to break out of the town. It was under martial law, and he knew it was an insane idea. If the guards didn’t shoot them in the face with their Kalashnikov’s, the helicopter would spot them.

Or the snipers. He knew they were the ones you had to watch out for. Desperate, sex addict hustler-types before him had already tried to escape from the town but had met their bloody end in the nebulae of red night.

“No one gets out of here until the virus has been entirely eradicated. Anyone who tries to escape will die,” was the the stark message from the police and the government.

“Leroy, you home?” asked Garrett as he knocked on the door for the seventh time that night. There was a light on, but Leroy wasn’t answering.

“Leroy? It’s your boy Garrett. Come on. Open up, dude. We gotta talk.”

Garrett looked up and down the heartless street that only took on a dreamy complexion when the sun was setting. He saw a cop on patrol across the road and nervously offered a smile and a wave. The cop cocked his gun and pointed it at Garret’s head.

Then he smiled, held up his hand and admitted he was joking.

“You gotta do something to keep the old spirit going, right?” shouted the cop.

“I guess.”

Still Leroy hadn’t answered and Garrett was growing frustrated.

“You looking for Leroy?” asked the cop.

“Yeah.”

“Oh, man. I don’t know how to tell you this. Leroy’s dead, buddy. We had to shoot him.”

“Why?”

“Why do we shoot anyone? He had sex. I guess he couldn’t help himself. We had to shoot them both. Yeah, it was a sorry sight. She could only have been nineteen. Whole life ahead of her.”

The cop shook his head and looked thoughtfully at the ground, as though having cinematic flashbacks of what had happened in No.44 Riverside Drive. Then he smiled.

“Okay. I guess I should head home then,” said Garrett.

“Sure. And don’t go chasing any girls, Garrett. Otherwise it’s bang-bang. We got you,” said the cop jovially, smiling and waving his gun carelessly in the poignant June air. “Take care, Romeo.”

Garrett had always sensed that he was a marked man. Everyone knew he was a sex addict. He had already been in rehab twice by the time he was twenty, and had been arrested for holding an orgy in a church. Everyone knew he couldn’t keep his hands to himself.

“I can’t understand why they haven’t just shot me yet,” mused Garrett the next morning over eggs with his dad. “If anyone is going to turn this thing into a goddamn epidemic it’s me. Not Leroy. Leroy hadn’t been with a woman for three years. He wasn’t interested. It doesn’t make no sense.”

“It’s because I raised you the right way,” said his proud dad before taking another swig of coffee. “You’re a smarter, disciplined and rational young man than anyone would ever give you credit for. This is a test from God. And you’re passing it.”

The old man’s eyes filled with tears. Garrett was moved but told his dad to stop being silly.

“Your boy Leroy was human like the rest of them. Where he was weak, you’re strong. Me and your mother are very proud.”

Garrett was inspired by his father’s words, but just a few days later he was mournful again. He was missing an ecstasy of the blood, the timelessness of sex, sweating in motels with strangers, making love into a boundless void.

He met his bohemian, paranoid friend Alan in a draughty pub, who told him all about his newly conceived theory in a quiet corner.

“This thing with the government, it’s never going to end. They’re trying to stop us from having children. That’s what’s really going on. This is elaborate birth control. They know there are too many of us in this country and this is their hare-brained scheme of controlling the population.”

“So, there’s no virus?”

“Of course there is a virus, keep up please. But they planted the virus.”

Garrett listened with interest but told Alan he was a crackpot and asked if he was still taking heroin.

“I’m serious.”

“Then why are we the only town with this virus? Why has no one else got it? Why is Boston still having sex, and Denver and Michigan? Why just Orlando?”

“This is an experiment. If it works, if it stops us reproducing, they’ll spread the virus to other places. It’s a caper alright. We’re just the guinea pigs.”

Garrett was unconvinced.

Then he felt Alan’s hand touch his thigh underneath the table.

“Come on, Garrett,” whispered Alan, sweat steaming off his forehead. “We’ve got nothing to lose. They’re not after us. They just don’t want men and women to indulge in coitus. I know how you really feel. I’m here for you. I can give you what you want.”

Garrett smacked Alan in the face.

Two days later, Garrett was told that Alan had been shot dead.

He felt uneasy and anxious. He sensed that the police were getting closer to him. People he knew were dying. He was surely next.

He looked himself in the mirror and thought about the ageing process. It was approaching seven months since his last lay. He was seven months older, and he looked it. One day he would be too old for the women he dreamt about.

He thought about the undulations during pillow talk. Subsiding undulations. Softening, slowing down. Until they stopped forever, like permanent creases in time.

He brooded and called up an ex-girlfriend he hadn’t seen since he broke her bed springs and refused to buy her a new bed.

“You want this as much as I do. I know you do,” he said to her. “I’m not even just about the sex anymore. I want marriage, Amy. I want marriage and I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately. This thing with the government, it’s never going to end. They’re trying to stop us from having children. That’s whats really going on. There is no virus. That old woman who started it all, she had dementia. That’s all. It got blown out of proportion.”

It didn’t work. Amy refused.

Two days later, he got a call telling him that Amy was dead.

“I am slowly going insane,” he told his dad over eggs the next morning. “It’s not even just the lack of sex anymore. I’ve become useless. We all have. We have no use to each other or society at large anymore. We’re trapped in this virus-infested bubble with no way out. Who gives a shit about us? I’m going out of my fucking mind.”

The town had been all over the news for the first three months after martial law was imposed, but now it didn’t appear on the news at all. They had been forgotten about.

“Stop yo whining, boy,” said his father tersely. He coughed and scratched his crotch.

Garrett noticed that his dad’s eyes were bloodshot.

“You okay, dad?”

Without any kind of warning, his dad leapt for him across the table and tried to strangle him. Garrett, the stronger of the pair, managed to free himself from his 67-year-old dad’s arthritic grip.

The ageing, pot-bellied man wasn’t to be outdone. He grabbed a fork and began to slash the air with it like a lunatic.

“Bruce Lee, eat your heart out!” he hooted before trying to pierce his son’s stomach.

“Dad, what the fuck?!”

His mother entered the scene with her own weapon – a shotgun.

“Mom! Dad’s got balsa!”

“Step back, Frank,” she advised.

Garrett’s mother aimed the gun at her own son and fired. The bullet cannoned through the shelf to the side of Garrett, smashing her favourite tea cups, and he made an escape through the back door.

He was informed later that day that his God-fearing parents had been shot dead by the police. They had given into the temptations of the flesh.

Weeks passed and other people that Garrett knew were killed in cold blood. His work buddy Hal had apparently tried to break into his wife’s new apartment during dark nightfall and attempted to kiss her. Her mathematician friend, who was reciting algebra in the bathroom at the time, called the police and Hal was shot sixteen times. All his wife had to say was that if you divide sixteen by two, you get eight. Two big fat zeroes.

Ex-girlfriends he had made it with were shot by police.

His old headmaster and his wife were killed after they couldn’t take celibacy anymore and stripped naked in front of the police in an act of martyrdom before copulating.

After two years of living in a virus-infested, marital law-controlled bubble, Garrett was a broken man. He had been beaten, his colourful essence dragged out of him.

He no longer desired sex at all anymore. He no longer had protoplasmic fantasies, or shapes melting into one another on mattresses.

Flesh, he no longer wanted.

Instead, he was ready to settle down and get married in a no-touching relationship with a woman who was as sexless as he.

It wasn’t long until he met and married Tina, a colossal woman. Neither was sure that they didn’t already have the virus, but they didn’t care.

He worked, she washed the dishes and cleaned.

He went to bed while she stayed up doing puzzles with a lodger called Harry. He didn’t have to worry about them having sex.

There was no such thing as jealousy anymore.

There were no emotions.

It wasn’t an ideal situation for Garrett, but he no longer cared.

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The Winter That Never Ended

The Winter That Never Ended

Martin had planned to do lots of things in May when the evenings were longer and the atmosphere was warmer. He was going to hit the beach, wear his new t-shirts, go to rooftop parties and drink cider in beer gardens.

Only, May wasn’t coming this time. The winter was still here. It had been here for eighteen months so far, and Martin was going out of his mind.

“It will soon be over, stop getting hysterical,” his mother told him. “What’s the matter with you?”

“It’s been eighteen months so far, ma. Can’t you see that? Can’t anybody see it?” he shouted.

He wanted to hit her over the head with a mallet. She had become alarmingly pragmatic and mentally blind.

He asked his surly dad if he didn’t think it was strange that he was still wearing hat and gloves after eighteen months.

“What are you talking about?” replied his dad, his breath vaporising in the air.

“You’re still wearing hat and gloves after eighteen months, dad. Don’t you think you should be wearing t-shirt and shorts by now? Don’t you miss summer? Don’t you remember it?”

“Stop bothering me,” grunted the grizzled man as he hammered another nail.

Some evenings, Martin drove up to Witches Hill to watch the sunset. The yellow ball set at the same time each evening. He was desperate to watch it set just a minute or so later than usual, but it never did. It sunk into the horizon on time each and every day. Its colours often changed; sometimes it had a pinkish glow, other times it was a searing orange. But it always said goodnight at precisely 16:27.

Some days, when he was at his wits’ end, Martin threatened to commit suicide.

“I can’t take these long dark nights anymore,” he said to his family. His girlfriend had shown some concern at first, but his mother and father had convinced her that Martin was just clamouring for attention. After six months of suicide threats, his girlfriend wanted him to see a doctor.

“A doctor isn’t going to make winter stop,” he said.

“Well, what do you want me to do, Martin?” asked his girlfriend in desperation, tears welling up in her eyes. “Do you want me to fly up to God and tell him to end winter already? Do you want me to put my wings on and fly up to the sun or something? Do you want me to invent the world’s biggest hammock that I tie to two telegraph poles, one in the east and one in the west, so that it catches all the snow? Tell me what you want me do to!”

“I don’t know!”

When Martin was finally convinced to go and see Doctor Mortimer, the news wasn’t good.

“You’re suffering from SAD, my boy,” said the doctor. “It’s a seasonal affective disorder that often afflicts people during the winter. What has happened is that your brain’s production of serotonin has been inhibited, which is why you’re walking around with a frown all the time.”

“Of course I’m suffering from SAD,” replied Martin through gritted teeth. “This winter has been going on for over a year. Everyone should be suffering with it!”

Martin rose from his chair, extended his arm and pointed aggressively at the doctor. “Why aren’t you suffering from it? Why aren’t we all suffering from it?” he snarled.

“Serotonin, my boy,” explained the doctor, shakily.

“Fuck serotonin! Fuck your excuses!”

Martin dugs his hands into the windowsill and looked out of the frosted glass.

“Look out of your window, doc. Don’t you see it? Don’t you see that this winter is never going to end?”

Doctor Mortimer was on the phone to the nurse. “Get this boy out of here. He’s flipped.”

As he was escorted out, Martin was told by the two male nurses that he should try and get some more serotonin.

“Try dopamine, too. My wife swears by it,” shouted one of the nurses as Martin crossed the parking lot.

“Never tried dopamine. Is it really good?” asked the other nurse as they walked back into the clinic.

“Oh, yeah. It’s real smooth, buddy.”

Things got to such a point that Martin went on a strike that he termed “winter strike.” He wanted to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that winter had lasted for almost a year and a half and that the country was being starved of summer.

“It is our right that we wake up, people!” he shouted at the top of his voice in Manchester city centre. He had one placard that read “WHERE IS OUR SUMMER?” and another that read “OPEN YOUR EYES PEOPLE. FUCK WINTER!”

He was also completely naked.

“I just don’t get why you have to do it naked,” said his girlfriend the night before. “I totally support your right to strike, and I really am behind you. But why do you have to do it naked?”

“I have to freeze my balls off,” he said. “Otherwise, the message won’t get through, Celine. If people see a naked man freezing his balls off, they’ll think ‘oh shit, yeah. I’m actually really cold myself and I’ve been really cold for eighteen months now. What the fuck?’”

Martin’s message failed to communicate to people. A few wrapped-up passers by offered him some clothing, while others threw loose change at him.

Eventually, Martin contracted hypothermia and was hospitalised.

It was when he was getting better in hospital that his mother, father and girlfriend told him that he’d probably been abducted by aliens.

“It’s the only explanation we can think of,” said his mother. “Your dad thinks they must have come when we had that power cut. Do you remember that?”

Martin, whose skin was still a pale blue, was largely unresponsive.

The doctor came in and explained to his family that they wanted to keep him for a few more days yet.

“A government official has been in today, too,” said the doctor. “Says he wants to speak with Martin when he’s got his mental capacities back together again.”

“Government official? What could they want?”

“I couldn’t possibly imagine. I think you need to get in touch with a psychologist, too. Apparently your boy Martin here almost froze to death because he was protesting naked in the middle of Manchester. Can you believe it? I’m all for a bit of protest, but protesting naked? In minus 3 degrees? That’s crazy.”

It was crazy, the family could all agree on that.

“I always knew he was an idiot, right from the moment he was born,” said his dad.

“I don’t think he likes winter very much,” said his girlfriend. “It makes him depressed.”

“Who does like winter?” asked the doctor with a warm smile. “I’m thinking of going to Australia next year and having a barbecue for Christmas lunch.”

The family all smiled with the doctor.

“That sounds grand,” said Martin’s dad.

It took Martin two months to properly recover from his nasty bout of hypothermia, and when he was strong enough to walk to the window in his hospital ward, he saw that heavy snow had covered everything in a white carpet.

“This winter is never going to end,” he murmured to a fat bloke in a bed next to him. The fat bloke was sat up, reading a childish book. “You know that?” asked Martin. “It’s never going to end.”

The silly-looking fat man turned a page with his stubby fingers. He was inhaling and exhaling loudly, like a beach whale.

“Doesn’t it bother you?” asked Martin.

The fat man didn’t respond.

The next day, Martin had a visitor. It was the government official that his doctor had told his family about.

The man was wearing a black suit. His mousey blonde hair was thinning, and he had a sly grin on his face that Martin found immediately disagreeable.

The nurses escorted the pair – Martin in a wheelchair – to a private room without windows where they could talk.

“You’re the naked man who was protesting in Manchester about winter, aren’t you?” asked the smiling government official, who never told Martin his name.

“Yes.”

“Martin, does it bother you that no one but you seems to care about the fact that winter has been carrying on for over twenty months?”

Martin lifted his head up.

“Yes,” he said, his eyes widening. “Do you see it too?”

The government official nodded, smiling.

“Of course I see it.”

“This is crazy. No one else sees it but you and I.”

“Of course they don’t, Martin. You see, Martin, they’ve learned to deal with it like the jolly good souls that they are. They’ve learned to not let it bother them or let it get them down. They’ve learned how to just go with the flow. What good people they are!”

“No!” protested Martin, trying to get out of his chair. It was then that he first noticed that he had been strapped down.

“The difference between them and you, Martin, is that they know summer will come again, eventually. They don’t know when, but they don’t need to know when. They just know it will come again.”

“But it was supposed to be here over a year ago!” shouted Martin.

“Martin, Martin, Martin. We can’t have it all can we?” asked the government official who was still grinning. “Oh, Martin. A prolonged winter isn’t that bad. It gives us the chance to do things we never thought were possible. There are things you just can’t do in the summer, after all.”

“You’ve done something to everyone! You’ve made them silly and stupid! Normal people don’t forget all about summer!”

“Okay, perhaps they’ve got elevated serotonin levels. Maybe they’ve got more dopamine. But you can have all of that too, you know.”

“I don’t want no fucking serotonin!”

“Martin, Martin, Martin,” repeated the government official warmly, speaking as though he was a friend of Martin’s who understood him.

Then he injected him with serotonin.

A few months later, Martin and his girlfriend got married in the middle of a blizzard.

“I’m the happiest man alive,” enthused Martin.

Everyone continued life as normal. They all sleepwalked into even murkier depths of winter.

Blizzards got more ferocious.

Snowstorms covered the ground with 30 feet of snow.

Temperatures plummeted to minus fifty five degrees.

Lots of people died.

Martin lived, but his girlfriend’s body gave up just five months into their marriage.

“Extreme hypothermia,” concluded the postmortem.

Martin had forgotten that if only people had acted and listened to him, things could have been so different.

As it was, nobody had been prepared for the winter that never ended but just got worse.

And worse.

And worse.

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