From the endcap:
The author’s thoughts on the story: “The central idea was a joke I made to my wife while we were watching reality TV. I owe it to her for convincing me to expand the idea behind that joke into a complete story.”
The House that Dripped Character
By BG Hilton
It is a dream. It must be. Each of us remembers sleep taking us–be it in a bed, on a sofa, or at the back of a crowded classroom. We know we are asleep, so of course we must be dreaming.
And yet we are not.
The house rises before us, above the tops of the moss-laded cypress trees like some great reptile from the Earth’s youth. Paint of some indeterminate color–bleached here by sun and darkened there by rain–peels from its splintery timbers. Attempts have been made to rebuild the structure in a dozen different styles, but the house’s Victorian heart is visible through these additions.
The windows are blocked with plywood and the roofing tiles are more absent than present. By all rights, the decaying structure should seem fragile, and yet it is almost shocking in its solidity. The ambient light is dim, and the hues of the house and swamp alike are washed and grey. The only hint of color comes from a tattered length of police tape, fluttering by the front door. There is no sign of a road, no sound of traffic, no address on the front of the house.
From the deep shadows beneath the trees emerges a figure. He–if it is indeed a ‘he’, for we can barely see a body beneath tattered robes, scarcely see a face beneath a dark grey hood–he walks with the careful tread of the very elderly. Slowly, ever so slowly, he shuffles to the porch of the house. From beneath his robe the figure produces a clipboard. In a voice that could wilt flowers or make a baby howl, the grim specter speaks:
“In recent years, Greg and Cynthia have grown weary with the rat-race in suburban Buffalo. They’ve decided to move into a new house in the western Swamp of Ultimate Despair region, where I have found three unhallowed dwellings for them to consider. Will they find the house that ticks all their boxes? Or will they be destroyed by their own hubris? Hello. I am the Realtor and welcome to… the House that Dripped Character!”
Suddenly… without warning… we are no longer in the swamp, no longer near the house. In a sickening instant, we have been plucked out of space itself. We barely even have time to panic before we return to reality to find ourselves in a mid-priced condominium in upstate New York. Amidst family photos and IKEA furnishings a man and woman in their mid-thirties perform mundane chores.
How to describe them? Imagine a black comedian’s stand-up routine about how dull white people are. Imagine that a mad scientist took that monologue and, using the darkest and most unholy arts, brought that cliché-ridden monologue shuddering into hideous pseudo-life. That is what Greg and Cynthia look like.
“I have a job in the financial sector,” Greg says. Who is he talking to? To us? He looks in our direction, but does he even know that we can see him?
“Not one of those high-end financial sector jobs,” he continues, “where you get to live on cocaine and single malt until you die of an ulcer in a strip-club. I’m more of a just-add-things-up-and-don’t-talk-back kind of financial sector guy. I’m looking for a big house that’s close to town, with a big garden, a small kitchen, and with plenty of space for my collection of antique lawnmower gas tanks.”
“I’m more of an arty sort of person,” Cynthia says. She tries to keep the existential angst from her voice. She fails. “I run some sort of impossibly specialized boutique that doesn’t sound like it could realistically have more than three customers a year. Maybe it’s a tax dodge. Maybe you just underestimated the demand for crocheted hats for gerbils. Either way, I somehow make it work. What I want is a small house, on the outskirts of town, with no garden and a huge kitchen. We can surely do without a lot of extraneous storage space.”
Space and time abruptly fold, warp, unfurl… and we are gazing into twin red eyes that shine from beneath the hood of the Realtor.
“In my game,” he whispers, “you are the spectators and the referee, all rolled into one. For this sport is nothing if it is not fairly played. You have witnessed the players. Now, it is time to see the board!”
We are moving… how? How? There’s no way to know. Now we are inside the house, the house in the swamp. It is neither as damp nor dank we might have guessed from outside. It is dusty though. A thick grey layer covers the floors, and makes the furniture seem ghostlike and otherworldly beneath its tarpaulins. This paleness contrasts sharply with the oak-paneled walls, stained so dark that they seem to trap the light like salmon in a net. An oppressive feeling of dread hangs over the spacious open-plan living area and modern kitchen. The color-scheme of the bathroom is a tad too seventies, but surely the least attractive features are the chalk outlines just visible beneath the dust outside the master bedroom.
Dare we consider the bedroom? Dare we? We have no choice. We cannot help but move where we move, see what we see. The Realtor wills it, and it is so. The door creaks open, and from the light of a fly-specked incandescent bulb, we see Cynthia and Greg looking with critical eyes at the blood-stained carpet.
“Yeah, I can see we might need some work done,” Greg says, “but this house is far enough below our price-point that we could afford it. My main problem with the place is that it’s pretty far from the center of town and that means a long commute every day. Otherwise, it seems okay.”
“I think it might be a little big for our needs,” Cynthia says.
“That just means we have space for my mother when she comes to visit.”
Cynthia stiffens. “Oh, she’s visiting again?” she says, her tone suddenly brittle.
The shadows deepen until all light dies and we are alone in the void of night. Screaming is impossible, for our throats are paralyzed. Slowly… slowly the Realtor appears, as if being woven into existence from strands of pure night.
“So, it seems that the first property doesn’t tick all of Greg and Cynthia’s boxes,” he says. “No matter! Let us try the second. Perhaps that will have more features from their wish list.”
The darkness vanishes into light–the unpleasant buzzing light of old-fashioned fluorescent tubes. We are in a narrow corridor, and the harsh brightness reflects unpleasantly off the concrete walls. At a nearby corner, arrowed signs point to ADMINISTRATION, SECURITY and STORAGE. A dark rectangle shows where a third sign fell from the wall.
Where has… ah! There it is on the floor. We can just make out the word LABORATORY behind bloody fingermarks.
“Well, this one certainly has got a lot of features,” says Cynthia’s voice, though we see no sign of the woman herself. “It’s a little bigger than I would have wanted, but the concrete-on-concrete construction should make cleaning easy.”
“Granite counter tops,” Greg adds, without enthusiasm. “I just think it’s missing that ‘wow’ factor.”
“But there’s plenty of freezer space,” Cynthia says.
“Plenty! And if I clear out the zombie labs, I can turn that area into a sewing room. I can certainly see myself living here.”
“Ourselves,” she adds quickly. “I mean ourselves.”
“I don’t know,” Greg says. “There’s not much in the way of an outdoors area. The soil is green-grey and even weeds refuse to grow, which will make it very hard for me to do any gardening.”
“I’m okay with that,” Cythia laughs. “No more tracking muddy footprints inside, ha ha.”
“Feet,” Greg snarls. “Gotcha. I’ll add ‘feet’ to the list of my body parts you have issues with.”
Everything changes. This time there is no darkness. This time, the fluorescent light grows brighter and brighter until our eyes burn even when closed. Then the light fades, dims, cools. Unscrewing our eyelids, we see that the fluorescence has given way to soft candlelight.
This room is octagonal, with stone walls set with high gothic windows and hung about with tapestries of fantastic richness. The light comes from a massive golden candelabra which hangs from a high mosaic ceiling.
In the center of the room is a round depression, filled with embroidered cushions of velvet and satin. Amidst these decadent furnishings, three women lounge. They are gorgeous beyond belief… beyond nature… beyond anything that is holy. They wear barely visible nightgowns over milk pale skin, and inch long ivory fangs protrude from ruby mouths. Between them lies a man, slowly dying from multiple shallow wounds, as the vampire women writhe sensuously in his ebbing lifeblood.
“Okay, so what’s this?” Greg sighs, gazing upon the sanguinary feast with barely concealed boredom. “Some kinda vampire orgy pit, huh?”
“Kinda nineties… Retro, I guess…” Cynthia shrugs.
“Very nineties. Vampires went all, like, celibate-y after that? I think? Anyway, it makes an okay conversation piece. On other hand, the inbuilt wardrobes leave a lot to be desired. And the neighborhood has… issues.”
“What issues?” Cynthia says.
“You know what issues,” Greg says, visibly squirming. “The… you know… the general tenor of the community…”
“God, you are such a racist,” Cynthia sighs.
“That’s not it at all,” Greg replies, though he seems to be addressing his shoes.
This time, when the scene changes it is a palpable relief.
Now we are… In a park? The sunlight, the green grass, the gorgeous flowerbeds all conspire to surprise our eyes. Are we at last free? Free of the Realtor and his horrors? Did the nightmare end and return us to the waking world?
For a moment, it seems it might be so… until Greg and Cynthia stroll into view. They are holding hands and smiling, but their expressions of warmth are so artificial that they could be used to flavor soft-drinks.
They stop, and the Realtor looms up behind them. “Now is the time!” the shade intones. “Our players must make a choice, for all of life is choices. Will Greg and Cynthia choose good or evil? Life or death? Love or hate? Or perhaps they will they choose house one, with loads of space and a ton of old world charm. House two… with a more than adequate cooking area and zombie production facilities. Or will it be house three? With its modern plumbing, erotic vampires and proximity to shops and transport? Choose! Choose and be damned.”
“Well, I liked house number two,” Cynthia says. “Greg can live in house number one if he wants, where there’s plenty of space for his mama.”
“I just felt that house number one had more features,” Greg says. “Features that might distract us from the purgatory that is our lives together. And it is substantially below our price point.”
“So cheap. Always so friggin’ cheap.”
“Well we can’t all run non-working businesses off of Daddy’s trust fund, princess.”
The couple glares at each other–each shaking with barely suppressed rage, each too furious to speak. For a long time, nothing is said. There is nothing but the park and their animosity, hanging in the air like ozone before a thunderstorm. In their silent faces can be read vast, Dickensian volumes on themes of contempt, regret and self-loathing.
At long last, Greg speaks, his voice seeming to come from very far away:
“So, probably the best compromise is house three.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Cynthia says, in tones sad enough to make a statue weep. “It’s got a big enough kitchen for me to avoid you in. And some space for your stupid hobbies too, I guess.”
All the world seems to twist and bubble as if reality itself was boiling away, leaving us once again in the empty nothingness of the Realtor’s realm. It is empty–a lightless void, featureless save for an A4 sized portrait of the Realtor that hangs in space beneath a brass plaque that reads ‘Employee of the Month.’
“Ever is it so!” the fiend cackles. “Do you think my game unfair? Rigged? Ha! It is not. It is the fairest game of all. Yet it destroys all those who play it!”
The creature stops to think a moment. “No, that’s not quite right. But it does seem to destroy about half of the players. I mean, seriously, what’s up with that?”
And then the Realtor is not alone. Greg and Cynthia are there with him, their shoulders hunched and their eyes directed downwards. The pen the Realtor offers them seems ordinary enough, but it seems heavy as an anvil in their hands as they sign the papers in his clipboard.
“Are we the first to play this game?” Cyntha asks.
“By no means,” the Realtor replies.
“How many couples have you destroyed?”
“It is beyond counting!”
“Why?” Greg wails. “Foul creature, why do you do this?”
The demonic figure shrugs. “It’s something to do, I guess. Not too taxing. And sometimes it’s interesting to see the inside of the houses. You know… see how people have them set up?”
Greg and Cynthia seem too disgusted even to reply.
“Well, I think it’s interesting,” the Realtor says, peevishly.
The contracts are signed and at long last, the nightmare that is not a dream begins to dissolve into blessed daylight. As we wake from the horror, we have yet a moment to see Greg and Cynthia one last time. Cynthia, close to tears, is trying to fit a venetian blind across a gothic window. Greg, his face a mask of impotent fury, is taking to the vampire orgy pit with a wet-and-dry vacuum.
“Truly, we live in a Hell of our own making,” Cynthia drones in a dead-eyed monotone.
“Yes,” Greg replies, “but at least the bathrooms were recently renovated.”
About the Author
B.G. Hilton is an Australian speculative fiction writer who lives in Sydney with his wife and daughter. His work been published in Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, Antipodean SF, Flash Fiction Magazine, the anthology Seeds and Skeletons and elsewhere. He blogs at bghilton.com, where his sprawling, coffee-soaked suburban-fantasy soap opera “The South Hertling Chronicles” is available for free. His first novel, the Steampunk adventure ‘Champagne Charlie and the Amazing Gladys’ will be published in early 2020 by Odyssey Books.
About the Narrator
Ron Jon is a creator of haunted atmospheres – melding loops, field recordings, synths, library music, found sounds & home made instruments. He is a narrator, musician, singer, student of parapsychology & the supernormal. He is a writer of disturbing micro-fiction for adults & children’s books. He has a new album out titled – ‘Cosmicism’. The music is inspired by the literary philosophy of H.P. Lovecraft called ‘Cosmicism’. The premise being that there is no recognisable divine presence, such as God, in the universe, and that humans are particularly insignificant in the larger scheme of intergalactic existence. The album cover art is an original illustration of Cthulhu by Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Want to listen? Go to the bandcamp site: https://thespectrecollector.bandcamp.com Or go to the blog: http://thespectrecollector.blogspot.com