“Magnificent,” announced the king’s assistant. “The detail, the colour, the emotion! It is simply wondrous.”
From the darkness nearby, Ellion Demerre, a scrawny, unkempt man with dark hair and dark clothes, approached the painting that had drawn the other man’s praise. It showed a woman of great beauty, naked on a backdrop of a midnight field. There wasn’t a brushstroke out of place.
“It is still not right,” sneered Demerre critically. “The symmetry is all wrong, the skin varies in shades, the hair has odd numbers of strands and freckles never match. It is infuriating.”
The assistant eyed Demerre through the gloom. The man was a genius without doubt, but his eccentricities made him difficult to work with. He refused to work unless the room was shrouded in darkness, saying that light created shadows and shadows could only be at one side, ruining any attempts at symmetry. His models could have no flaws and even the ones that he was given were deemed to be lacking the perfection that he required.
Many thought that it was the death of his wife that had pushed him over the edge. He had always been eccentric but after his beloved’s death he had absorbed himself in his art to the exclusion of everything else. It definitely hadn’t dampened his skill with a brush though. Despite already being the best painter in the land, his skill continued to noticeably grow each year.
Demerre grunted with indignant anger at his own failure and removed the painting from its stand. “I must start afresh. I must achieve perfection,” he muttered to himself, forgetting the assistant’s presence. A cough brought his attention back to the man. “Return to me in a week. I am close now, I can feel it.
Without another word, Demerre returned to his desk, muttering beneath his breath as he went. The king’s assistant sighed and left, knowing that he would get nothing more from the vexing man. The king was growing tired of being kept waiting for his commission, and it was his assistant who suffered under his anger with each delay.
It was night now. He had already dallied for too long at the painter’s workshop. The streets were empty and a cold chill permeated his clothes. Thinking things over, he decided that the king needed to have some evidence that his gold was being well spent. The assistant would return to Demerre and ask for the last portrait as a sample for the king.
His feet retraced the narrow paths that led up to the isolated building that Demerre had chosen as his workshop. The building was old but fit it’s purpose well. The assistant knocked upon the peeling door but there was no answer. He knocked again and the door creaked open slightly, obviously having not been shut properly upon his exit. Cautiously he pushed it further open and peered into the gloom.
Unable to see the artist, the assistant called out, his voice sounding unnatural in the consuming quiet. He tried again, louder this time but still there was no sign of life. Studying the room now that his eyes were adjusting to the darkness, the assistant could see that the desk was vacant and all was still.
The man shook his head angrily. He scolded himself for the fear that he was feeling. He was a grown man, an assistant to the king no less! A dark room belonging to an eccentric painter held no terror for one such as himself. His nerves suitably calmed, he opened the door further and stepped boldly inside.
The main room had once been a small warehouse of some kind that had been converted into a workshop. The room was a big open space but felt cramped due to the masses of neatly arranged equipment that filled the area. In his quest for balance, Demerre had attained two of everything he needed and positioned them so that the room itself look like it was being reflected by a giant mirror.
Manikins lined the walls, their blank faces all turned towards the entrance as though to stare at any visitors that dared to enter. The assistant walked past them at a dignified pace, looking as though he was simply taking a stroll through a park. He stopped at the desk but could see no sign of the painter.
Thoughts of leaving to try again in the morning were interrupted by a faint clicking sound that echoed at the edge of hearing. At first it seemed that mice were the culprits but as the sound continued. The assistant located the noise as coming from a door that stood at the back of the workshop. It made sense that Demerre would have a private area to relax in.
The assistant knocked on the old wood, paint falling from its surface under the impact of his knuckles. The chittering continued uninterrupted but no other sound marked that his knock had been heard. He pulled the door open expecting a creak but the hinges moved silently. The passage beyond was bathed in thick darkness as though a satin veil had been hung behind the wood. The assistant reached out but his groping fingers touched nothing.
Earlier he had noticed an unused candle upon the desk, its design suggesting that it was more for show than practical use. He grabbed and lit it with a match from his pocket. The light revealed little but it was enough to illuminate the area immediately around him as he entered through the doorway.
It was a narrow space of plain walls that bore no colour. The floor gave way to a stone stepped staircase that descended into an unknown underworld. By his guess, the assistant took the stairs as a pathway to a wine cellar that had likely been converted to living quarters by Demerre. The harsh clicks were now clearly audible from below.
“Mr Demerre!” the assistant called, his voice echoing so that the words stretched out for several seconds after he had closed his mouth.
The clicking stopped.
“Mr Demerre! It is me, Gillian. The king’s assistant.” he shouted. Silence greeted his statement. He waited for a few minutes.
The clicking returned.
The assistant sighed and placed a foot on the first step. Slowly he made his way down into the cellar, all the time cursing Demerre’s perfectionism and his king’s impatience. Every step took him further from his warm and awaiting bed.
The last step led straight to another plain door, this one more sturdy looking than the others. The assistant turned the handle and it swung open, taking him by surprise. The sudden movement caused a draft, extinguishing the candle’s flame.
Shadows did not consume his vision though. The room beyond glowed with flickering amber light that wrapped itself around the assistant’s body. He drew a sharp intake of breath.
Demerre was stood at the room’s centre, a skull in either hand. He worked the jaws like a puppet, their teeth creating the incessant clicking. Around him were hundreds of candles lain out in concentric rings that grew smaller and smaller until the centre ring stood only a few feet away from the man. Their dancing light reflected off of a dozen skeletons that stood in posses that mirrored life or hung from the walls like exhibits in a museum.
“Beautiful, aren’t they?” spoke Demerre softly. “All the imperfections of the flesh are removed, leaving only blank symmetry. These are the true blank canvasses of humanity.”
Gillian took a panicked step back. “You’ve lost your mind!” he stammered. Sinister thoughts of all of the unsolved disappearances of recent years flooded his mind. Despite the regiment of candles, the air felt painfully cold.
“Not at all,” stated the artist loftily. “For you see, the mad cannot learn. Think about it! Only by stripping back humanity layer by layer can you hope to ever construct it perfectly. Take away the imperfections and only then can you create true beauty. My wife taught me that.”
“Your wife?” Gillian asked through shaking teeth. His brain screamed for him to run but his feet felt rooted in place.
Demerre seemed to fade into a dream for a moment but his eyes quickly refocused on the man before him. “Yes. She was a glorious woman but was unfortunately not without her faults. Her facial structure was perfect but a freckle her and a birthmark there ruined the effect. I knew though that she held the foundation of true perfect beauty. I killed her, preserving the image of her beauty in peoples minds forever before age could ravage her with asymmetric wrinkles. Then, ever so carefully, I peeled back the layers of corruption until only the bones remained. From there I had the ultimate base with which to ply my trade and form perfection.”
He strode purposefully out of his circle of flame and approached a long chest that stood directly opposite the door where Gillian stood. He opened it with a flourish. Inside was a woman that beggared belief. Her beauty was indescribable, as though an angel or goddess had been captured within the box. Both sides of her body were a mirror image of the other, her pale skin seemed to glow with life in the candle light and her flowing blonde hair fell around her perfectly like water. Not a single blemish marked her skin.
“It is amazing what one can achieve with good quality wax, wouldn’t you agree?” asked Demerre conversationally. “You can trust me that there is a perfectly even number of hairs on the head too. Even the complex patterns of the eyes match splendidly. She truly is my greatest piece of art. Man made beauty covering nature’s perfect frame.”
“You won’t get away with this!” Gillian growled, righteous anger overcoming fear. Demerre after all was physically inferior to the assistant so would be unable to stop him.
Demerre ignored him though, seemingly forgetting the other man’s existence. “It still isn’t enough though. After completing her I realised that one being alone was not enough to create the ultimate expression of life on paper. I needed the other side of humanity. I needed a perfectly formed male to accompany my darling wife.”
Gillian managed to take a startled step back, his legs finally obeying him. Sweat beaded on his skin despite his confidence in being able to escape.
“Has anyone ever told you that you have a marvellous bone structure, Mr Gillian?” Demerre grinned madly.
Movement returned to the world as Gillian span and raced for the stairs and his freedom. Like a coiled spring, Demerre shot after him, his sudden burst of speed surprising for an obsessive artist. Gillian’s first foot mounted the initial step but Demerre’s hand closed around his second. The momentum of his arrested sprint toppled the assistant, bringing his head down upon the stone steps with a crack.
The madman scrambled over Gillian like a giant spider, pinning his limbs despite the other man’s larger build. Gillian struggled with all of his strength but Demerre seemed locked in place. Grinning wildly, the artist pulled a syringe from his belt. A cloudy liquid sloshed within the class cylinder. With a practiced motion, Demerre removed the needle’s cover using his teeth then sunk the cold metal into Gillian’s throat.
Gillian screamed and lashed out, finally managing to dislodge his attacker. Free, he tried desperately scrambled up the stairs but his limbs thrashed around ineffectually. His musclles were out of his control. Panic threatened to overwhelm him as his arms and legs stiffened, freezing him in a contorted shape.
His eyes were the only part of him not locked into place. They darted with terror, watching as Demerre advanced upon him slowly. The man swayed slightly with each step, his face etched with fanatic enthusiasm. He moved to Gillian’s side, removing himself from the other man’s field of view. Gillian heard him crouch down beside him.
“Running away recklessly like that was not a clever idea, Mr Gillian. That fall could have cracked that perfect skull of yours. What a tragedy that would have been.”
Gillian tried to talk, to scream, but no sound escaped him. His chest felt tight. Tears streamed down his cheeks. He felt Demerre’s hand on his chin, tracing its way across his jaw to the temple.
Demerre moved again, leaning closer so that his lips were almost brushing Gillian’s ear. “You will make such a wonderful canvass. Be glad that you life will advance the beauty of art for eternity. That is the kind of legacy that all men should aspire toward.”
There was a glint of metal. Another syringe hovered in Gillian’s peripheral vision. Demerre grabbed his arm and moved it, pulling up the sleeve to reveal flesh.
“This won’t hurt a bit. Quite the contrary in fact. It will remove pain from your body completely. To kill you outright could damage the bones and then this whole little ordeal would have been pointless. Call it professional eccentrics but I find creating the image of life hollow if it comes from death. No, I must peel back the layers of humanity in order to reconstruct them with strokes of a brush. I made special tool for the process. Muscle can be such a trouble to remove cleanly from bone after all. I am sure that you will find it all fascinating. Let us just hope that I got the dosage right. I’d hate for you to start squirming once the skinning has begun.”
A hand clamped around Gillian’s ankle and began to pull. His body slid down the few steps he had managed and disappeared back into the candle lit chamber. His mouth was open on a terror distorted face, screaming in silence.
Another older story here. Probably from around 2010/2011. Looking through these old stories I realise just how much of academic English Literature is centred upon the gothic. I studied it a lot and wrote it a lot. In fact, despite being a Fantasy writer, I have very few short stories in that genre.
Writing short-form fantasy is a skill in itself. I struggle to build a magical world, compelling characters and a grand story in a small space, but the gothic suits short stories perfectly. Darkness is easy to cast upon the reader, menace is as good a narrative device as any number of epic quests, and death is an easy but emotional end.
I don’t read much gothic works but I sure do love to write them.