Short Story – The Skull

An experiment with a different style, dipping my toe into some old-school Hammer Horror …

 

skull

This is the unhappy tale of an acquaintance of mine whose company I have valued greatly since our shared boyhood, Mr James Beaumont, and of his misguided endeavour with a most nightmarishly empowered object.

It should be known to you that Mr Beaumont is a young widower, his dear wife Elizabeth having fallen victim to some mortal fever soon after they were married, and that his tranquil, taciturn exterior – often mistaken for arrogance – once concealed a keen and humorous mind, as well as an enthusiasm for the study of ancient artefacts such as those unearthed by archaeologists and displayed in the fine museums of the capital.

The artefact at the heart of this tale however was not discovered by my friend Mr Beaumont in such an emporium, protected from all but visual inspection by the glass walls of a secured cabinet. It was instead given to him in trade by an individual I myself have never encountered, and I conclude my lack of connection to Mr Beaumont’s associate to be quite fortuitous, for me at least. For the individual in question was described to me as a most unsettling fellow, well dressed and kempt yet carrying with him an aura that dissuaded too close a study of his countenance.

In relating his version of events to me, Mr Beaumont asserted his firm belief that their meeting was not entirely by chance, although he assured me that until the evening when this strange fellow approached him at the inn at the centre of our little hamlet, he had never before set his eyes upon him.

The gentleman – and armed with my knowledge of events beyond their meeting, I wonder if the term gentleman is entirely apt – introduced himself as Mr Leveque, and was permitted by Mr Beaumont to join him at his table. It transpired that Mr Leveque was a man of some learning who had travelled to England on some undisclosed business now concluded, and in conversation he presented himself as an eloquent and intelligent fellow, despite that unseeable disquieting quality to his bearing that I mentioned earlier. After a time their talk turned to matters of archaeology and it was at this point that my friend Mr Beaumont was drawn into Mr Leveque’s confidence.

Mr Leveque offered that he had recently obtained an interesting artefact unearthed somewhere in his native France and my friend’s curiosity was acutely piqued by Mr Leveque’s description of the object. It was a skull, he reported, adding that although he himself was by no means learned in such matters, certain men of his acquaintance trained in the appropriate sciences had speculated that the object was indeed of some ancient, unknowable age.

In spite of the brevity of their association, Mr Beaumont could not resist imposing himself on Mr Leveque, requesting an opportunity to inspect the mysterious skull as soon as possible. The Frenchman welcomed my friend’s interest, though, and as he himself was leaving for the coast the next day to set sail for Europe, arranged to bring the artefact to Mr Beaumont’s home later that very night. He left the inn to fetch the skull from his lodgings, while Mr Beaumont bade goodnight to the landlord and returned to his house.

On his way however he was gripped with a great despair, having realised that in his excitement he had neglected to furnish Mr Leveque with his address. All hope of a second encounter lost due to Mr Leveque’s impending departure, he returned home with a heavy heart and was pleasantly surprised to find his new acquaintance already awaiting him on the doorstep, carrying a solid wooden box which, Mr Beaumont assumed, would contain the skull.

Feeling rather foolish at his failure to provide his address, my friend presumed that Mr Leveque had realised the mistake and returned to the inn, inquiring of the landlord as to where he might find Mr Beaumont. I have the most sincere doubts about this; my own inquiries of the inn’s landlord and several of his patrons have yielded little of use. They seem not to recall the stranger, or even to remember seeing another man in the company of Mr Beaumont.

The two men entered the house and while Mr Beaumont prepared drinks and a cold collation, Mr Leveque unsealed the box and removed the skull.

My friend examined it, his excitement growing. He has since related to me how he felt his desire to possess the artefact bloom like a living thing in his heart, and confessed somewhat shamefacedly that he would have sold even his beloved collection of books to provide finances enough to purchase the object. Sensibly he decided not to elaborate on the price he would be prepared to pay should Mr Leveque be prepared to sell, instead making a hopeful enquiry as to the Frenchman’s plans for the object.

Rather sadly, Mr Leveque stated that he would be unable to take the skull with him on his return journey to Europe, as with his business in England now concluded he had quite enough baggage as he and his entourage could manage. Secretly delighted, Mr Beaumont offered to purchase the skull, specifying an amount far below the price he was prepared to pay, should Mr Leveque choose to haggle, which I believe is the way on foreign shores. Mr Leveque, to my friend’s instant regret, advised that his current finances were more than sufficient, and that he had no need to exchange the skull for money.

He would, however, consider a trade.

The nature of their exchange is a matter that Mr Beaumont has only revealed to me in the grip of the delirious fugues that have begun to plague him of late, and perhaps that is the only manner in which such ghastly secrets can be disclosed. I find I cannot bring myself to disclose it to you, dear reader, until I have offered some summary of the events which ensued. Suffice it to say once the terms of the agreement had been outlined by Mr Leveque, my friend acquiesced.

I visited him the next day, as we had previously arranged, and I found both him and his abode to be an uncharacteristic vision of disarray. Much of the furniture had been relocated to the perimeters of his parlour, the carpet peeled back, and on the floorboards beneath I spied a light dusting of what appeared to be chalk. It seemed apparent to me that some complex pictogram had been sketched upon the wood, and at some point hurriedly and incompletely brushed away.

As for Mr Beaumont, his clothes were rumpled untidily about his frame as though slept in and his hair, usually combed with a care bordering on vanity, was so unrestrained that as he told me of Mr Leveque and the artefact he was constantly forced to push it away from his eyes, which themselves were somewhat swollen and brightly-veined. Rather tactlessly, I wondered aloud about the strange mark imprinted upon Mr Beaumont’s otherwise smooth forehead – a crimson shape that upon first glance resembled some intricate wounding. He dismissed my curiosity and concern, thanking me but insisting that the cut was minor, the result of an unhappy accident he deemed too insignificant to elaborate on. Instead, he showed me the skull.

Our meeting did not end happily. With nary a fracture nor flaw visible upon the dome of ivory-coloured bone, I speculated aloud my doubts regarding its supposed great age, an opinion with which Mr Beaumont disagreed violently. With distressing swiftness he became angered and ordered me from his house, commanding me never to visit him again. I left, disheartened and confused, and, I confess, more than a little frightened by the sight of that smooth, white skull.

Perplexed by my fruitless enquiries at the inn, I reviewed my options and found them limited. Unable to trace the elusive Mr Leveque, I concluded that my only route of investigation lay with Mr Beaumont.

I returned to his home that night. I found myself approaching the house with unbidden stealth, realising only as I converged upon the broad window that looked onto his parlour that not only was I afraid of the mysterious skull, I had become frightened of Mr Beaumont himself. Given my high regard and indeed affection for my friend, it was a most unhappy realisation.

Keeping myself concealed as best I could, I peered through the parlour window and was greeted by a scene of such horror that already I feel the tremor in my hand, the lurching of my heart, as I felt these symptoms that dreadful night.

The room was illuminated by the light of many candles, thus I could see well enough. As before, the furniture had been pushed aside and the wooden boards of the parlour floor exposed, this time fully adorned with a chalk rendering of some complicated symbol that tortured the eyes. Its lines and spirals and impossible angles combined to form some image that was at once every shape and no shape, playing with the senses in such a way that the floor itself seemed to shudder and ripple like a restless sea.

Mr Beaumont stood in the centre of this kinetic non-shape, his body swaying as though the floor was indeed moving beneath him, his left fist enclosing the handle of what I identified with terror as a knife of some description. In the other hand, he gripped that accursed skull.

Held by a bone-freezing dread, I could only watch as Mr Beaumont, apparently in the thrall of some powerful trance, raised the knife to his forehead. With a calm, almost dispassionate motion he pressed the blade to the wound already flawing his brow, and commenced to cut himself further. Blood welled, streaming in crimson rivulets down Mr Beaumont’s pale, somehow mask-like features. The rivulets gathered at the point of his chin, then fell like gruesome raindrops onto the curved surface of the skull.

The effect was immediate and terrifying; where the blood had fallen upon bone, flesh blossomed. Glistening flesh, writhing with some unnatural detached life of its own. Mr Beaumont’s blood had impacted against several portions of the skull, and even by the flickering candlelight I could see how rapidly the twitching matter expanded, combining with other parts of itself to fully enshroud the bone.

Through the glass of the parlour window, steamed with my own ragged breath, I heard Mr Beaumont speak several words, some I identified as Latin in genesis, others with which I am thankfully unfamiliar. With the last of his incantations, spoken with the same toneless detachment as those preceding it, hair sprouted from the scalp of the nightmarish skull; dark hair, fine like an infant’s, but thickening even as it spilled in auburn waves over Mr Beaumont’s fingers.

He dropped the knife to the shifting floorboards, clasping the skull in both hands and raising its smooth visage to his own red-streaked features. Slowly he drew the skull’s countenance closer to his own, kissing its evolving mouth with all his tenderness. His features brightened suddenly with some ghastly expression of joy, and he mouthed words which I could not hear but knew well enough from the movement of his lips.

I love you, Elizabeth, he said, and it was at this point, I find myself unashamed to relate, I heard a shriek and realised it was mine.

Mr Beaumont whirled, his fingers still buried in that luxuriant spill of auburn hair. His eyes were wide and crazed and piercing, but it was not his eyes that held me. It was the glistening orbs that had sprung up within the black depths of empty sockets, blue as the sky in summer and alive. The eyes of Elizabeth Beaumont.

Consumed by the shock of discovery, Mr Beaumont’s fingers released the disembodied head – at this point I could not regard the object as a mere skull – and it tumbled towards the exposed floorboards. I blinked, and in that instant the artefact had reverted to its ossified state, all flesh and hair and staring eyes having vanished as if in a dream. It impacted against the wood, whereupon it shattered into five jagged fragments.

I should have fled then, overtaken by horror and disbelief, yet my legs would not carry me. I simply stood in mute shock outside the parlour window, watching as Mr Beaumont, his shoulders broken by grief one more time, stood in the centre of his sketched pictogram and wept.

Beneath his feet, the liquid-like crests and troughs of the floorboards dwindled to a gentle swell, then ceased, becoming immutable wood once more as Mr Beaumont fell to his knees. His hand enfolded one segment of the skull and he clutched it to his breast, his sobs tearing themselves from his throat with such force that I instantly recalled the night before his wife’s funeral, when his resolve had crumbled and he had cried like a child in my arms.

If I could not abandon him then, I thought, then I could not abandon him now, not in such a moment of unbearable suffering. Barely aware of the tears on my own face, I left my position at the parlour window and went inside.

Now I sit in that very same parlour, composing this final report as best as my memories will allow. I have spent this night at Mr Beaumont’s desk with paper and pen, listening to the wind howl outside and to my friend’s muffled curses as he struggles against his bonds and the gag silencing his mouth. Madness grips him, as I fear it must grip any mortal who looks through the boundaries of reality and into the unknowable void beyond.

All night my gaze has alternated between the words on the page and the other two objects on the desk. A fragment of that accursed skull, and the knife. More and more, I have found myself marvelling at how the blade glimmers in the candlelight.

I know I must kill him.  I am very afraid for my soul should I commit such a dreadful sin, but such a shattered mind should not be suffered to live.  I pray that my heartbreak at ending his life will be eased by the comfort of believing my crime to be an act of mercy.

My soul is to be damned, but I fear that my dear friend Mr Beaumont … James … need have no such concern. For, while I choose to damn myself, with my actions and with these words, his soul lies not in his own safekeeping.  His soul already burns in the hellish realm of the mysterious Mr Leveque, ensnared for all eternity in the words of their unholy contract.

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4 thoughts on “Short Story – The Skull

  1. Dammit, Roger. Why are you so good? I read the last half with my mouth literally hanging open. I want to be jealous, but it’s impossible. The diction is impeccable, the pacing inexorable and quickening…it’s quite fine. You truly are an evil genius.

  2. I don’t even know what to say. wait…yes I do. Bloody A.W.E.S.O.M.E in the real sense of the word. I am literally in awe of your writing.
    This is why you need to be published big time. I cannot see how when you finish your novel it won’t be snapped up immediately. Every time I read something of yours I think: “No it can’t be any better than the last one,” and yet here I was reading yet another masterpiece. I echo all Willow says. It first bought to mind a kind of Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes feel. I just love this style of narrative POV and you pull it off bloody amazingly. It’s as though you are an actual 19th C writer. The horror element and story, as always, is flawless. I mean I winced because I’m squeamish but that’s a good thing but in some ways it’s not the horror element which keeps me reading. It’s the style and the pacing. You pace so well. I can’t tell you how much I really do bow at your writing altar! Okay, I’ll shut up now, lest your head not fit through the train doors later! 😉 (But mean every word. WOW!)

  3. Now it’s ME who doesn’t know what to say! Haha! Thank you so much, Joanne. I can’t say how much it means to me to know that readers – and my friends 🙂 – are enjoying my humble scribblings …

    I had a lot of fun with the “voice” in this one (it’s the great Peter Cushing’s voice to me, to be honest) but if I learned one thing from the experience it’s that a 19th century writer would be RUBBISH at #FP! “140 characters? Pah! Why use one word when you can use about three hundred to say Good Morning?” 😉

    Thank you again for reading, and for your very kind comments! xx

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