The first draft of “Blue John” centered on a demon-possessed letterpress that compelled Blue John to kill. Which, of course, meant he was simply a conduit for evil and a rather one-dimensional character. I put the story aside, returning to it only after reading “The Invention of Murder” by Judith Flanders, a non-fiction book about the reporting of crime in the Victorian-era press. I realized Blue John had plenty of motivation to kill and didn’t need any satanic prompting. As Blue John became more real to me, so did the character of Finch, and he ended up taking over the story.
This is J.R.’s third collection, and his best yet, featuring eleven frightening, challenging stories of strange horror. This collection cages a menagerie of quiet human horror that inhabits territory in both magical realism and bizarro underpinned by sardonic humor.
As he moves into longer forms, Hamantaschen views this collection as a fitting encapsulation of the themes and motifs he’s explored in his short fiction, and a showcase of the styles that worked best in his previous two collections. In particular, the final novella in this collection is hopefully enough of an impetus to get you to read the whole book.
This plus his previous two collections, “You Shall Never Know Security” and “With a Voice that is Often Still Confused But is Becoming Ever Louder and Clearer” are all available in digital form for less than $10, so consider spending some of those gift cards here. (Such as at AMAZON or your purveyor of digital content of choice.)
by D.K. Wayrd
I’m behind the bar shucking oysters when Blue John enters the tavern. He’s wearing a plain tweed suit instead of a policeman’s uniform, but still moves with a constable’s swagger. “Boy,” he says, “where’s your master?” I lay down my knife and leave to find Father, to tell him our new lodger has arrived.
That night, in the storeroom where I sleep, I drag my straw pallet to a spot over Blue John’s cellar room. Gaps between the floorboards give me a slivered view: a table, a wardrobe, a bed. The rest of the cavernous room is dark, beyond the reach of the gas lamp’s wavering light. Blue John sits half-naked at the table, his bull-chest covered with dark curly hair. He holds a red leather journal in his lap and strokes it lightly, as though petting a cat, before opening it and beginning to write.
“Finch, go to Blue John,” Father says the next morning. “He needs help.”
The cellar stairs are in the back courtyard, between pig sty and privy. Blue John’s door is open, and I see a policeman’s coat and helmet hanging from pegs on the wall. The coat still has its silver buttons; the helmet shows only a stain where the starburst shield of the Metropolitan Police once gleamed.
There is a screech of nails being torn from wood. Blue John stands over a disassembled packing crate, pry bar in hand. Inside the crate is a slant-topped work desk with many drawers, each drawer only a few inches high. We wrestle the desk to the center of the room and place it next to the iron frame of a machine. Other boxes yield a metal disc larger than a dinner plate, long cylinders covered in india-rubber, an iron wheel like that of a small steam engine. I hold and fetch and carry while Blue John builds. The iron skeleton becomes a letterpress, a one-man machine operated by a foot treadle.
Blue John pauses to wipe his oily hands and looks me up and down. “You don’t say much, do you, Finch?”
I shake my head.
“Louder. I want to hear you yell.”
Blue John smiles. “Yell–Shocking Murder!”
“Shocking murder,” I say, and Blue John’s arm lashes out. My elbow explodes with pain. “Bloody hell.”
“That’s better.” A leather-covered blackjack dangles from Blue John’s hand. “You’ve got to make noise to get anywhere in this world. Try again.”
I haven’t raised my voice since the cholera took Mother, since Father turned into a silent grey husk. I close my eyes and take a great breath, then shout with all my might.
“I suppose you’ll do,” Blue John says. “I’ll arrange it with your father.”
That night in the tavern I ask Father what Blue John wants. “Later,” Father says, and sets me to clearing dishes and wiping down cutlery. When his back is turned I steal away to sit with Nettie and Alva at their usual corner table, where Nettie is reading aloud from the London Almanack. “September’s full moon is called the harvest moon,” she says, her voice clear despite her many missing teeth.
“Should be called the harlot’s moon,” Alva says. “Enough light to show off the goods, without showing the bad.” They laugh, though I can’t imagine Alva having any bad bits.
I slide onto the bench next to Nettie, who is old and no longer on the game. Retired, she says, living off her savings and day-work at a coffee house. Nettie enjoys cosseting me and starts combing out my curly hair with her fingers. “Pretty enough to be a girl,” she says, “but be thankful you’re a boy.”
Alva pulls a red ribbon from her dark hair and tries to drape it round my head. I jerk away, unnerved by the touch of her hand on my cheek.
“The new lodger,” I say, “why is he called Blue John?”
Nettie argues it is because he wore the blue coat of the Metropolitans, while Alva makes much of his bright blue eyes. Neither knows why he left the police force, or whether he was kicked out.
“He wasn’t one of the worst,” Alva says. “He never cracked heads except when he had to.”
I rub my bruised elbow and stay quiet.
Alva glances at the mantel clock and sighs, then stands to adjust her clothing and hair. The theatres and music-halls will let out soon, spilling men onto the streets, men lusting after the dancers and actresses they cannot touch, and Alva will be waiting for them.
Nettie also stands. She wears a green dress from a time when her hair was fiery red instead of clay-brown. She still enjoys a walk among the night-time crowds and, every now-and-then, a man will recognize her, treat her to a drink for old times’ sake.
Two days later, well past noontime, Blue John pulls me from the tavern and hands me a stack of papers tied with twine. We walk to Waterloo Bridge station, where clerks and merchants swarm the platform awaiting the late afternoon trains.
“Watch and learn, Finch.” Blue John cuts the twine and grabs a few sheets. He tips back his derby and shouts “Murder!” before wading into the crowd and thrusting a page into the startled face of a man half his size. “There’s a fiend on the prowl, my friend, read all the shocking details the Times won’t tell, only a ha’penny.” I follow, handing papers to Blue John until a train arrives and drains our customers away.
Blue John pulls out a kerchief and wipes the sweat from his face, resettles his derby, and counts out thirty sheets from the pile in my hands. He holds them up. “Ha’penny each. So how much is this lot worth, then?”
“Fifteen pence,” I say, eager. It’s the first thing he’s asked me all day. “I know my numbers and I can read, too. Before Mother died I went to the poor school most every day.”
The corners of Blue John’s mouth twitch. He hands me the sheets. “Don’t give ‘em the paper until you have their coin.”
The station grows crowded and I find my voice. I learn the game of catching men’s eyes, finding those eager to buy, sensing which ones will shy away. One man hands over a penny and, seeing the train chuffing at platform’s edge, leaves without his change. I give Blue John fifteen pence and keep what’s left over. He gives me another thirty sheets. We’re out of paper before the six o’clock train arrives.
On the way home Blue John motions for me to walk beside him. “You like it, don’t you, yelling bloody murder, taking their money.”
I nod. I like the yelling, and the ha’penny stashed in my pocket. I like being away from the tavern’s endless chores and Father’s silence. Which part I like best, I’m not sure.
“Show me your hands.”
For a heartbeat I think he knows about the hidden coin. I pull my hands from my pockets, fingers splayed.
“Big enough.” Blue John grins. “Mr. knows-his-letters. Perhaps I’ll teach you to set type.”
I stand at the work desk in Blue John’s room, holding the composing stick—a small open-topped metal box—as he reads out words from his journal. I pick type pieces from a desk drawer and arrange them, left-to-right and upside-down, in the stick. The raised letters appear backwards to the eye but will print right on paper. I am still slow at setting the type, though I can read the topsy-turvy letters as fast as I can read a newspaper sheet.
The story tells of a Temperance Union worker, her throat slashed, her body left on the steps of the police station in Hyde Park. Blue John reads out the next sentence: Neither her piety nor her high-necked woolen dress protected her from the fiend’s attack.
Blue John checks my completed lines and adds them to a block of type waiting in the galley. Then, impatient to be done, he moves the journal to the desktop and takes over typesetting. His broad hands and blunt fingers make quick work of the final sentences.
“There was a man,” I say, breaking the silence, “a shopkeeper, beaten to death in Alewife Lane this morning. You could do his story tomorrow.”
“A shopkeeper? Finch, I’m disappointed, I thought you knew how this game works. Our readers don’t want simple violence. They want sensation—a shiver of fear, a peek into a stranger’s dirty secrets. This story,” he points to the half-filled galley, “will sell. A well-born victim, a good girl workin’ with the downtrodden, her life snuffed out by an unknown killer. Oh yes, I like this story. Fear and titillation and blood. That’s what we sell.”
“How do you find the stories? Before the newspapers even print them?”
“I was a copper for ten years, weren’t I? I still have friends on the force, at the morgue. And friends on the other side as well—pawnbrokers, pickpockets, rag-and-bone men. They know who’s doing what in the dark, in the alleyways.”
He sets the final lines of type into the galley, binds them together with a length of cord, and transfers the galley to an iron-framed chase. “And what I don’t know, I can always make up. Readers don’t want facts, they want a story. The killing is just the first act. Then comes capture and confession, a trial and a hanging. All good grist for our mill.”
I think of the Temperance worker, hurrying through the dark. Did she know what was happening? Did she try to scream through her gaping throat?
“This press was my father’s,” Blue John continues. He inserts blocks of wood and wedge-shaped quoins into the chase to lock the story in place, then places a board over the top and gently taps the surface with a mallet to level the type. “Da was a jobber-printer, never did anything original in his life. He loved ink and drink, and nothing else. Wanted me to be a printer, but I had other ideas.” Blue John puts the mallet down and takes up the ink knife and a pot of black.
By the time I leave for my evening chores the clank and thump of the letterpress fills the cellar. Blue John’s leg pumps up and down, the inky rollers stroke across the letters, the platen thrusts against the bed of type. Blue John feeds in blank white paper with his right hand and removes printed stories with his left. The ink will dry by morning.
We fall into a routine. Twice a week we work the train stations. Other days Blue John walks the streets, talks to his friends, or visits pubs to listen to gossip and rumors. Most evenings I bring a pail of beer to his room. Some nights he motions me inside, pulls open the desk drawers and teaches me about the different typefaces, the serifs and grotesques, blackletters and gothics. He speaks lovingly of their beaks and barbs, shoulders and spines, loops, links and tails.
Other nights he takes the beer and shuts the door without a word, and I return to my room to peek through the floorboards, to watch him remove the red leather journal from its hiding place atop the wardrobe. He writes, reads, strikes out passages and reconsiders. Some nights he is well-pleased with his scribblings, other nights he seems angry. Some nights he rises, puts on the policeman’s coat, and leaves until dawn.
The weather turns cold, proper November weather. My numb fingers clutch the handles of a barrow as we deliver to the news agents who now buy our pages and offer them for sale right next to the Times and Telegraph. Blue John speaks of hiring other boys, of teaching them what we share and sending them out to the train stations under my supervision.
We turn a corner and meet Nettie coming from market, a basket on her arm. “Afternoon,” Blue John says, tipping his hat and extending a sheet toward her. “A free copy for you, my dear.” His shirt cuffs are grimy and his fingers black with ink. Nettie thrusts the paper into her basket and hurries past.
Blue John snorts. “The good woman is disgusted. Yet she still reads.” He grabs my shoulder and pulls me around to face him. “Know this, Finch, I won’t stay a penny-pamphleteer for long. Mr. Dickens gets rich spewing out sentimental tripe, stories of orphans and lost fortunes, all nonsense. The people want murder and by God I will give it to them.”
Blue John writes furiously. I watch, drifting in and out of sleep, until he replaces the journal in its hiding spot and takes down the blue coat. As he leaves I rise and creep into the pantry, where I nick Father’s keys, a stub of candle, and a matchbox.
The red leather of the journal is smooth and supple, warm to the touch. Inside are Blue John’s notes, drafts of stories, sketches of victims. I start at page one and struggle to read his disorderly handwriting. I fear his return and do not stay long.
I cannot keep away from the red leather journal. I live for the nights Blue John puts on the police coat. I stay longer and longer in his room, burning through candles and risking discovery, learning how he puts together his stories.
It’s early December, and full dark by five o’clock. The tavern’s gas lamps are blazing. Nettie and Alva sit at their usual table, heads together, talking over their drinks.
“You probably already know,” Nettie says to me as I sit down. “Two souls killed Sunday night, a man—“
“An Earl, almost seventy years old,” interrupts Alva.
“—and his mistress, a dancer, barely sixteen. They found the bodies tied together, naked, behind the stage at the Alhambra.”
I don’t say anything. I’ve been out with Blue John all afternoon, selling the Earl’s story. A good murder. Profitable.
Nettie shakes her head and stares at me. “Horrible what they say in the papers. No respect for the dead.”
Blue John approaches across the tavern floor. He wears a gamboge waistcoat and carries a new walking stick, its ivory handle smudged with black. “Evening,” he says, removing his hat, looking only at Alva.
“Oh, leave us alone,” Nettie says.
“Don’t tell me what to do, old whore.”
“You think that’s an insult?” Nettie’s blood is up. “It’s truth. Men gave me money to stay with them, and gifts when they tired of me, and I saved it all. What did the police give you? A boot up the arse?”
Blue John’s face goes quiet. He nods to Alva before walking away.
“Why’d you rile him?” Alva says. “He isn’t a copper anymore, he’s a businessman. An author.” She stares after him, then sighs and stands to straighten her clothes and hair.
My stomach clenches, hard, and I grab Alva’s hand. “Don’t go out tonight. It’s too cold. Why not try working at something different?”
Alva pulls her hand free and pats my head. “You’re a sweet boy. But I was a seamstress once, and I ain’t about to go back to it. Twelve hours work for a single shilling. No, I’ll make my living using what God gave me, using it how men want.” She pushes past me and heads for the door.
“You’re one to talk, Finch,” Nettie snaps. “Why do you work with him? He’s a brute and he’s turning you into one, too.”
I feel tears rising, of anger and hurt and something I can’t name, and I turn on Nettie. “He’s just giving men what they want, Nettie. Like you did. Like Alva does.”
Nettie slams down her drink and hurries after Alva. I take her glass to the scullery, where Father hides the good whiskey. Up in my storeroom I sip whiskey and watch over Blue John as he writes. When he stands and puts on the policeman’s coat I wrap my blanket around my head, to muffle the call of his red journal.
I dream of blood and black ink, and wake to the smell of frying liver drifting up from the cellar. Blue John is at work, his mallet tapping on a form filled with type. I go to help, but Blue John is inking the disc by the time I stumble through his doorway. He grins and gives me the meat scraps in his skillet.
“Why so early?” I ask.
“I want the papers dry by noon. We’ll be first on this one—a good bloody murder last night, in Soho Square. No one important, but gruesome. We’ll sell at King’s Cross.”
Before I can ask about the details I hear Father in the courtyard, calling my name. I leave the cellar and crouch in the stairwell until Father gives up, then I run through the streets to Soho Square. Constables cluster around a pile of green rags heaped on pavement black with blood. Other coppers keep the gawkers away. Next to me two housemaids stand and stare, baskets clutched tight.
“Murder!” I shout. The coppers glare at me and I take off running, pleased with how the maids jumped and gasped.
That afternoon a light snow begins to fall as we work the street in front of King’s Cross. My patter is automatic now—I no longer hear the words I shout. A man wearing a striped satin cravat hands over tuppence, his lips wet and eager. I turn away without giving him change. Old fool. I tuck a sheet into my trouser pocket, to read later.
In the evening the tavern is quiet, though snow usually brings in customers eager to warm up, to drink and sing. Alva sits by herself in the corner.
“Where’s Nettie?” I ask.
Alva pats the bench. “Slide over close to me, love,” she says, and puts her arm around my shoulders. “Nettie’s not coming back.” She runs her fingers through my hair, but it tugs and pulls, not like when Nettie does it.
“No, Finch. She’s dead. They found her body this morning.”
My hand goes to my back pocket. I pull out the sheet but the disobedient letters jump and tremble, and I stumble over the words. When I get to the part about Nettie being carved up, her kidneys and liver gone, I bolt into the courtyard and drop to my knees, retching. Steam rises from my puke and I think of Nettie, of her body growing cold in the dark while Blue John set down her story. No one important, but gruesome. He’d made sure of that.
Father, on his way to the privy, sees me kneeling on the bricks. He tells me to get up, that there’s work to be done.
I’m behind the bar, shucking oysters. Blue John sits with Alva, celebrating. He’s taken a reporter’s job at the Dispatch. No more inking the press for him, no need to hawk papers at the railway station with a boy by his side. I watch them as I pry open the rough shells, cut through tough muscle, spill out slick gray meat.
I force a smile and deliver a plate of oysters. Blue John’s new waistcoat is striped ivory-and-crimson and his hands are scrubbed raw, but crescents of ink remain under his fingernails. Alva snuggles close, clutching his arm. Blue John and Alva. I watch them later, through the floorboards.
I hate waiting, watching Blue John fondle the supple red leather at night. Five days pass before he takes down the policeman’s coat and I am able to visit the journal. I turn to the final pages, where the words are clear and bright, jostling each other for the chance to be read. They describe the alleyways behind the Haymarket, tell me where Blue John will wait tonight in the dark.
I fetch Father’s razor and a slender fish knife. They quiver in my hands, eager to act, to create, not at all like the obedient weight of a composing stick filled with someone else’s words. When I find Blue John I’ll call out his name. ‘It’s only Finch,’ he’ll think, and stop for me. ‘No danger. Just a boy.’
I’ll do what needs to be done, then hurry home to my type and press. Shocking Murder; Police Imposter! The words are tumbling into place in my head. I’ll write the story, lock the type, tell what I choose to tell. It will be a good murder, and a fine first act.
About the Author
D.K. Wayrd lives in a kudzu-infested corner of North Carolina with one spouse, various animals, and an alter-ego who writes science fiction and fantasy. She enjoys long road trips on twisting backroads, reading until her eyeballs burn, and searching for inter-dimensional portals.
Her work has appeared in Shock Totem, Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. She wishes she had a forthcoming novel to mention but hey, maybe next time.
About the Narrator
Hailing from the rainy North West of England, Phil Lunt has dabbled in many an arcane vocation during his lifetime. From attempted rock-star to conveyor-belt scraper at a bread factory, Easter Egg Wrangler at Woolworths to World’s Worst Waiter. Actor, designer and very infrequent writer. He’s currently recovering from being Chair of the British Fantasy Society for 4 years and now works full-time as a Casting Booker but likes to read stories to you whenever he gets a chance. Having an entry on Wookiepedia is one of his greatest achievements but for his sins he supports Bolton Wanderers. You could always check him out on Twitter to see what shenanigans he’s currently involved with: @phil_lunt