Thursday, December 14, 2017

Slade's House, an extract

With apologies to David Mitchell (not that one)

I become aware that I'm in a dark room. The only light is from a candle in front of me. Is this the attic space? Somehow it doesn't seem to fit.

I wait for my eyes to adjust so I can find my bearings, but the light remains resolutely dim. I can just about see four other figures kneeling on the wooden floor, encircling the flame. Statues? They don't move, but they seem alive. Directly opposite me I see my own reflection in a dirty old mirror. Sharp leaves are pinned to the wooden frame, above my head.

I want to turn around and check that the entrance is still there, but I can't move. I can't move a muscle. I'm starting to panic. I look to the kneeling figures for some clue, some hint of normality.

The light in the room suddenly seems to shift, and I hear a voice. "Welcome back, lads. Told you it'd work." There is movement around me, now. I'm able to get a look at the speaker to my left as he leans closer to the flame, his suit a constellation of flickering reflections. This doesn't make sense - it's David, my host, but instead of his neat side-parting, a waterfall of hair now spills down over his shoulders. The tweeds have been replaced with a bizarre silver outfit. He glances at me with a look of undisguised contempt.

"Took your time, though!" another figure responds, just right of the mirror. "I was starting to think he'd never come up here." I try to make out his features. He bears a striking resemblance to Jimmy, but older. His face has the same slightly odd proportions. He has the same frizzy hair, but extended to shoulder length. His shirt is more garish and old-fashioned. I'd guess he was Jimmy's father if David hadn't introduced himself as such.

I'm just wondering whether this is a hitherto-unmentioned uncle, when David replies. "You're too impatient, Jim. If we did things your way then people would get suspicious." I know it's not so unlikely to name a child after another family member, but some echo of their earlier interactions leads me to the impossible realisation that this is Jimmy, inexplicably aged.

I glance at the reanimated waxwork between them in a desperate search for more information. Why, it's Powell, the butler. He's got longer hair too, and a similarly outmoded shirt. "Never mind that, Dave," he pipes up.

Ignoring him, David faces me again. "Welcome to our humble abode, here's a mince pie and wouldn't you like to come and look at our attic?" He relaxes the sarcastically cheerful expression. "Think you would have fallen for that? To be fair to Jim, I think you might well have done. But they're not always going to be so credulous."

"What's happening?" I ask. Or at least, I try to ask. Not only can I not move, I can't speak. So complete is my paralysis that I now realise I am not breathing. How long can the brain survive without oxygen? I'm sure I've heard that every minute halves the chances of survival.

"I wouldn't try to work it out," this older version of Jim says to me, giving Dave a brief sullen glare. "Time works differently in here. And in answer to your other question, what's happening is that you're being sacrificed."

In this room, in this place, it doesn't occur to me for a second to doubt him. Terror is instant.

Why me? I can't ask it but they seem to be able to tell what I'm thinking.

The fourth and final face on my right turns to catch the candlelight. It's Neville, the gardener. We only met briefly but his extravagant sideburns are easily recognisable. He's a younger man now, but dressed in the same faded red blazer, the only new addition being a colourful top hat.

He looks at me gravely. "It had to be you. It had to be tonight. This was all set into motion nine years ago."

"There's no point explaining it, Noddy," says Powell.

"Not to this one, anyway," Dave adds. "Clearly not that bright."

"Hush up, you two," Jim snaps. "What's the hurry? This is the only time I get to inhabit my true self."

"A small price to pay for eternity," utters Neville. "That's what you're giving us," he says to me. "You and your compatriots. You should be honoured, to be a part of something so much bigger than yourself."

"Yeah, all right, Nods," Jim grins, "I'm sure they'd be volunteering if we gave them the chance. Don't act like you're above the deception." He turns to me. "Everything you saw tonight was an illusion. Right, Don?"

I realise he must mean Powell the butler, who takes up the narrative. "Nothing you saw in the house really happened. In fact, the house doesn't even exist. It was demolished by Wolverhampton Council in 1988. But this simulacrum of the house remains, suspended outside of linear time. And we remain here as its guardians."

None of this is real? I fumble for meaning in what they are telling me.

Dave notes my confusion. "To be more precise, the house is fake, but this room is real. Maintaining its existence consumes a vast amount of psychic energy, which we need to recharge every nine years. Hence your good self."

"Speaking of which," Don resumes, "perhaps we ought to be getting on with it. We're stuffed if he finishes asphyxiating before the ritual is complete."

"Yes, but I'm just at the clever bit. The by-product of this psychic harvest goes to maintain our shadow-forms in the waking world and maintain our position in the mass subconscious, ensuring the continuation of our..."

"That's enough, Dave," Neville interrupts with an air of final authority. "You said yourself he can't understand it. Let's begin."

The four of them begin moving their hands to an invisible choreography. The candle flame brightens and I begin to see shapes forming in the light: arcane lettering, sigils of a forgotten alphabet. Something is coalescing in the air above it. Something indistinct and grey and staticky, like analogue interference. I watch, helpless, as it takes shape.

Please, I think. Please don't do this.

"Too late for that, now die with some dignity please," Dave mutters abruptly and without taking his eyes off the flame.

"Ignore him and focus on getting the spelling right," warns Jim.

The cloud of static grows toward me and I can hear faint music. It seems familiar but I can't focus on it.

"...when you land upon your head then you've been slayed..."

As it gets within a few inches of my face, the cloud surges into me, into my mouth and nose and eyes, and I feel an electric surge as something is ripped from me and suffuses the cloud with a beautiful golden light. For the first time the room is properly lit and I can see my blank face in the mirror, the holly pinned to the frame, the stocking on the wall...

It's my soul. They've taken my soul. They've taken...

The majority of the light disperses amongst the four men, bathing them in its luminescence before gradually fading. The small remainder spins faster and faster above the candle, spiralling into a miniature whirlwind before launching itself through the intact ceiling like a spectral firework.

As oblivion claims me, I hear Noddy's cheerful announcement: "Here's to another nine years of airplay..."

Then, all is nothing.

"...look to the future now, it's only just begun..."