A Free Steampunk Horror Short Story
Sometimes I forget that I'm also a fiction writer, so I thought it might be a nice change of pace to share one of my stories with you. I wrote this piece awhile ago for an anthology that never came together and I'm tired of just sitting on it.
It's one of the more odd stories I've written, and it's in something of a stilted style because I was trying to capture the "feel" of 1860's writing without making it inaccessible to a modern audience.
I hope you enjoy!
The end began with the cry of, "he's alive!" by the reclusive Dr. Nebo on a warm afternoon in the Spring of 1862, at his manor on the outskirts of London. The "he" in question was a young man who had until only recently been dead before his time, whom Dr. Nebo had illegally and immorally dug up from a nearby cemetery. After a transfusion of living blood and a jolt of electricity, Dr. Nebo successfully returned the dead man to life a scant three days after his death.
The formerly dead man in question, a Mr. Eliot, retained all of his prior vitality, cognition and personality, seemingly none the worse for wear despite his quick stint as a corpse. After an exhaustive day of testing his patient, Dr. Nebo, finding nothing amiss, proclaimed to the world that he had conquered death and could return the recently dead to life, thus beginning what he hoped would be a new era of peace and understanding for humanity.
The news spread like a wild fire. Before word had even been printed in the papers, people nearby were bringing the corpses of their relatives to the doctor so that he might instill new life in their dead bodies. And instill new life he did, working around the clock to resurrect those who had once lived. One of his first patients was an Eloise Darby, brought in by her son, Richard Darby.
Richard, at thirty-two years old, was one of the most successful accountants in England. When Dr. Nebo's announcement had come a mere day after his mother died, it seemed almost like a message from God himself that Richard was to take his mother's body to the doctor. They had, during life, been quite close and so despite his misgivings on the subject, he seized the day and took her to see the doctor.
When he arrived at Dr. Nebo's manor on Wednesday morning – the announcement having been made on Tuesday evening – there was already a line of patients extending out of the doctor's property and down the road, so Richard settled in to wait. The doctor's house looked as though it had been in his family for generations, and while it had once been a country manor, the rest of London had sprung up around it over the years. The paint, once bright and cheery, was sun-bleached and cracking, and the yard was thoroughly untended. The doctor's clients, patients literally in tow, had beaten a path through the tall grass of his driveway and now waited in the sun for their turn to be seen which, truth be told, was creating quite a stupendous stench that everyone was doing their best to ignore.
Richard brought his mother in a wheelbarrow and he saw that the other clients had used all manner of conveyance, from carrying the dead over their shoulder to bringing a fine carriage with a filigreed monogram. Waiting was the hardest part and Richard took to studying those who went in and came out, leery of some sort of trick or scam. However, as more and more people came out significantly more alive than they had gone in, Richard slowly began to believe that the treatment was a reality.
It wasn't until later in the afternoon that the first sign of trouble arrived. Richard had been waiting all day by that point and while he was next in line to go into the house, the queue behind him had grown to colossal lengths, traveling down the road and disappearing off into the distance. An enterprising young man had even taken to selling food, drink, and perfume to those in line. And yet from away in the distance, a lone figure walked past the row of the living and the dead and, gesticulating wildly, slowly made his way toward the manor. It was some time before Richard could actually tell who it was and what they were saying, but word spread quickly up the line that it was the local Bishop, come to condemn to hell those involved in this blasphemy. Soon enough, Richard heard it with his own ears.
"…and you'll rot for eternity in the pit! This is an abomination of the Lord's will, and no good shall come of it!"
There was more of the same, but Richard turned his head and pretended not to be paying attention. Before too long, the Bishop reached the door to the manor and barged inside, spouting scriptures laced with condemnations. All was quiet for a few moments as every single person in line waited with bated breath to see what would happen. They weren't disappointed. Mere seconds later the Bishop came physically flying back out through the front door, landing in a heap on the grass outside like a rag doll tossed aside carelessly by its owner.
It was then that Richard first laid eyes on Dr. Nebo. The doctor was by no means a tall man, but he came striding out his front door like a cyclopean giant, his narrow, hawk-like face screwed up in anger. He pointed a thin, aging finger at the Bishop accusingly.
"The problems in this world are your fault, hypocrite, and those like you! I'll not let your fear and shame prevent these people from receiving the benefits of my scientific discovery! I'll not let you fools treat me like you treated Galileo!" With that, the doctor went back inside his manor and slammed the door behind him.
After a few moments, the Bishop's dazed senses returned to him, and he stood up shakily, brushing dirt from his cassock. Retreating a few steps from the house with wary caution, the Bishop shook a gnarled finger at the crowd.
"Mark my words!" he said. "You've doomed us all! God will not allow it! He'll cleanse this place like Sodom and Gomorrah! You'll all see!" Having finished saying his piece, he turned and walked back the way he'd come. The crowd watched him go in hushed silence.
Exactly seven minutes later, the door to the manor opened and two healthy, able-bodied men walked out, embracing each other with the tenderness of a father and a son. As they walked away from the manor, Richard grew increasingly aware that it was now his turn and that if he had second thoughts about returning his mother to life, he had better act upon them now. And yet the crowd afforded him no second chances. The woman behind him, bearing her dead husband on a board, all but pushed him into the house and, before he knew it, he found himself inside the doctor's manor, alone with his dead mother.
The interior of the manor matched the exterior perfectly, with cracking paint, dust building up in the corners, and piles of what Richard could only assume was garbage filling up the rooms. There was no sign of the doctor.
"Bring the next patient to the back," echoed a voice from down the hallway.
Richard obligingly lifted the handles of the wheelbarrow and made his way to the back of the house, casting one last, forlorn look at the outside.
The rear of the house was, to Richard's surprise, nothing at all like the front. The paint was still cracked, but that was where the similarities ended. The rooms that he passed were filled with giant brass and leather contrivances, the purposes of which he could only guess at, and there was no dust to be found anywhere. There were, however, shelves full of glass jars, strange artifacts and pieces of machinery.
When Richard reached the doctor's laboratory, he stopped, stunned by what he saw. A gigantic wheel of copper wire was being turned by a short, misshapen little man, and thick, corded wires ran from there to a series of electrodes above a long, flat table. The really terrifyingly gruesome part, however, was the sharp metal needles that ran into rubber tubes, dripping blood onto the floor. The doctor himself wore an apron smeared with blood and looked more like a murderer than a savior.
"Come," the doctor said, "lay the patient on the table."
Richard finally found the courage to speak.
"Doctor, I…" he paused, his voice ringing out in the sudden silence. Richard was by most accounts a rather timid man. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Well, the Bishop, you see, he was quite-"
"Yes?" Dr. Nebo said impatiently.
"Well, I'm not the most religious man, you see, but that Bishop, he said some terrible things about your work."
"I understand," the doctor said, in a tone quite unlike that which he had used on the Bishop. He sounded… tired. "It is difficult to reconcile this work with the words of God and, for many people, that will be a problem in the days to come. And yet did God not provide us with reason and logic enough to achieve these wonders of science? Were we not made in His image, complete with the desire to create life? I will be frank… These thoughts have kept me awake at night for many years, but always I return to the vision in my mind of a world in which we do not have to say goodbye to loved ones, and in which the great thinkers of our day may live on to create new works of genius." The doctor drifted off into silence.
"Doctor?" Richard prompted.
"Oh, yes, well, as I was saying, I am offering this service free of charge, for the good of humanity. You may either take advantage of my generosity, or take your rotting corpse and leave."
Richard was, as he had said, not the most religious man and so grabbed his mother by the shoulders and hoisted her onto the table. The doctor seemed pleased by his choice and began connecting needles, tubes and electrodes to the dead woman.
"Sit in that chair," the doctor instructed, pointing at a fearsome, blood-splattered chair that had tubes and terrible needles entwined around it. Richard felt the blood drain out of his face.
"But doctor, I-"
"She needs your living blood. Sit in the chair."
Richard felt the saliva welling up in his throat, swallowed heavily, and sat down in the chair.
"Roll up your shirt sleeves," the doctor commanded, and Richard reluctantly obliged, exposing his forearms. The doctor took one of the needles, ran it over an open flame, dunked it in a bowl of water, and then inserted it into Richard's arm, causing him to yelp quite loudly. Soon, red blood began flowing out of him, through the tube, and into his mother.
"Doctor, exactly how much blood does this require?" Richard asked, faintly.
"Do not be worried. Not nearly enough to cause you any serious harm, though you may be slightly dizzy for the rest of the day. I recommend rest."
"There, all done. Now stand back while I infuse the body with electricity. This may be slightly disturbing to you, so you may want to close your eyes."
Without waiting to see whether Richard took his advice, the doctor moved over to a large switch on the wall and pulled it down, instigating one of the worst things that Richard had seen in his entire life. Electricity rushed into his mother's body, causing it to jerk and dance on the table, spasming out of control as her muscles fired aimlessly. The thick, leather straps that held her down were nearly not up to the task of keeping her still. It was as if some demon were possessing her and forcing her into a cruel pantomime of humanity. But before he knew it, the horrible dance was over and his mother, Eloise, was drawing in a shuddering breath.
The doctor set about undoing the straps but Richard hardly noticed. He approached the table, dazed.
"Mother?" he asked.
"Richard?" came the croaked reply from a parched throat. "Is that you?"
"Yes, mother, it's me."
"Well I say, what is this dreadful thing that I'm wearing?" Eloise sat up and examined her clothing, a long black dress. She was a thin, older woman with a severe face and gray hair pulled up into a tight bun.
"You, ah, were to be buried in that, mother," Richard said, apologetically.
"You never listen to me, Richard. I thought I told you I wanted to be buried in the blue dress, not the black dress. This must be Hell."
"It was the good doctor here who returned you to life, mother, and the dress was Diana's decision. She felt-"
"I hate to interrupt, but I trust that all is in order, yes?" the doctor asked.
"Oh, yes, she appears to be quite right," Richard said.
"Then if you wouldn't mind making way for the next patient…?"
"Oh, of course," Eloise said. "We'll be on our way immediately, doctor. Come along, Richard."
Richard followed his mother as she got to her feet and began walking out the door.
"Mother, might I just say that it's simply wonderful to see you again? I thought I'd lost you, you know."
"Yes, yes," she said, distractedly. "That was a very handsome doctor, wasn't it?"
"I, erm, suppose so. Listen, mother, I'm trying to tell you that I-"
"I'm positively famished, Richard. Be a dear and try to find me something to eat on the way home."
Richard sighed. Perhaps the idea of losing his mother had blinded him to exactly how frustrating the woman could be, at times.
"Of course, mother," he said, defeated. Fetching her a skewer of meat from one of the outside vendors, they walked home together as she devoured it.
Richard's wife, Diana, was anything but thrilled to see Eloise again and, as a result, Richard spent the next two nights sleeping in the nursery with his infant son Jonathan as a punishment. His wife and his mother had always figuratively butted heads, but at least had enough decency to refrain from doing it literally.
For the Darbys, the next two days were a return to normalcy. It was easy for Richard to ignore the troubling events happening in the outside world while he was with his family. And yet the world continued to turn, as the newspapers showed. Word of Dr. Nebo's work spread around the world in record time and before the day was out, all manner of scientists, government officials, clergy, beggars, and even nobility had come to the doctor's manor to consult with him. To give the doctor credit, he was entirely magnanimous and gave his method of treatment away to any other doctor or scientist who was interested in learning it, free of charge.
It was on the second day after Eloise returned to life that Richard learned that Dr. Nebo's manor had been burned down, with the poor doctor inside of it. It was ironic that the doctor's own treatment would not work on him, as there was no way to raise ashes from the dead. Nebo, being the genius that he was, should have better predicted the consequences to his actions, but genius is, after all, frequently accompanied by a certain type of innocence. His death was the spark that set off a powder keg of hate, pitting those who were religious against those who were not. A surprising number of people believed in science over faith, many more than there would have been a mere ten years before, but with the many advents of science in the last few years, the so-called cult of technology was gaining many followers. Several prominent scientists and rationalists believed that Dr. Nebo's death was but the first of many, while the Church held that it had not been responsible for the doctor's death, but that it probably should have been, since he was no doubt a devil-worshipper. During this time, Richard was content to simply keep his head down. It wasn't until the third day that things began to go horribly, horribly wrong.
Friday evening's dinner was a somber affair. The truth of the matter was that the entire family had been ill at ease since Eloise's return, and the only one who seemed at all cheery was the formerly-deceased mother, who put her food away as though she had an internal fortitude of bovine proportions.
"Mother, hadn't you better slow down?" Richard asked, after she helped herself to her third portion of dinner.
"Don't be rude, Richard," she said. "Besides, I'm absolutely famished."
"Well, I suppose recovering from… your condition would make anyone hungry," Richard said. "Right, darling?"
"Oh, yes, of course," Diana said, her tone altogether failing to hide a seething anger. "And look, darling, she's cleaned her plate again."
"Richard," Eloise whispered, leaning over close to her son, "your wife is an awful shrew."
"I can hear that, you know," Diana said, standing up from the table. "I believe I'll retire for the night, thank you very much." With that, she threw her napkin down on the table and walked away.
"Would you fix me some more food from the kitchen while you're up?" Eloise shouted after her.
"Do it your own bloody self!" came the shouted reply.
"Ah, don't worry, mother," Richard said, holding up his hands to forestall the angry look on his mother's face. "I'll fix you something."
"Get me some meat, Richard!" Eloise called after him as he went into the kitchen.
Richard searched the icebox and the larder, but didn't find any meat. Instead, he picked up a pastry from that morning for his mother, thinking that perhaps she would find it an acceptable replacement. Thusly armed, he ventured back into the dining room.
"Now, mother, we don't have any more meat at the moment, but I got you one of those delicious pastries from breakfast. Besides," he said, lowering his voice conspiratorially, "it probably isn't good for your girlish figure to eat so much all at once, now is it?" Richard placed the pastry on the table in front of her, and then put his hand comfortingly on her shoulder.
Eloise reached up, took hold of his hand, and promptly bit the fleshy part between his thumb and his wrist hard enough to make him scream. Richard tried to pull his hand away but her teeth were locked, and yanking only made it hurt more.
"Mother!" he screamed, but her eyes were white and unfocused, and her face was strangely slack. Eloise, her teeth old and dull, couldn't seem to bite entirely through his hand, which was what was putting Richard in such excruciating pain. Finally, driven nearly mad, Richard began to beat his mother about the head with his hands in the hope that she would release her hold, but to no avail.
After a few seconds of this, Diana came running down the stairs in her nightgown and stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the scene before her. Richard, screaming, was hitting his mother in the head while blood from the hand in her mouth was splattering all over the linens as mother and son flailed around wildly at the table. When Diana finally came to grips with what was transpiring, a large, mean smile slowly spread across her face. Very deliberately, she cleared off a sturdy silver serving platter, then picked it up and walked over to the table, where she raised it above her head and brought it down with all of her might onto Eloise's head.
The jolt was enough to get the old woman's mouth to release Richard, who fell backward into the tea cart with a resounding crash.
"Well, that was the first bit of fun I've had in days," Diana said. "Are you alright, darling?"
"Ugh," Richard said, shaking his head to clear it. "I… I'll live, I suppose. I'm in need of a bandage. What about mother, is she…?"
The husband and wife looked over at Eloise as the old woman gracelessly separated herself from her chair and stood up. Gone was any trace of personality in her face, and gone was the vitality and coordination one would expect to see in a living person. Her lips were pulled back away from her teeth in a horrible rictus, the smeared blood on her face making her a terrifying sight.
"I don't think your mother is with us anymore," Diana said.
"But I don't understand. She was perfectly fine just a…" Richard trailed off as Eloise took a shuddering step toward them. Then another. And another.
"Perhaps we should continue this conversation elsewhere," Diana said.
"Y-yes, of course. Upstairs, quickly!"
The two of them raced up the stairs, stopping at the nursery to collect the infant Jonathan before finally locking themselves into the master bedroom. After Richard turned the lock, no one said a word. They tried as hard as they could to not even breathe, fully intent on listening.
Soon they heard it. Thump, creak. Thump, creak. Eloise was slowly but inexorably making her way up the stairs.
"She's coming!" Diana whispered. "Do something!"
"What! Why me?" Richard whispered back.
"She's your mother!"
"All the more reason you should spare me the trauma of-"
"Oh, for heaven's sake," Diana said, exasperatedly. "Hold Jonathan. Sometimes I forget why I married you."
"I'm beginning to suspect that it was for my money," Richard said.
"Well, it certainly wasn't for your family," she said. "Now, where is- Aha!" Diana picked up their stoker from the fireplace mantel – a long, barbed iron rod used to move coal around in the fire – and stood in front of the door, holding it in a checked swing like a golf club.
Again, all was quiet as the couple listened to the steps shuffling across the wooden floors. They held their breath, hoping that Eloise would wander off, but she came unerringly for the bedroom door and they heard her stop in front of it. Richard's heart beat high in his chest as he waited, frozen in fear.
BANG. Richard nearly fainted when the bedroom door shook in its frame as Eloise pounded on it from the outside. Bang, bang. Richard clawed his heart back down from his throat, swallowing heavily. Bang, bang, bang. She wasn't going away, but the door appeared to be holding its own against the somewhat pathetic onslaught of a not-quite-fully-dead 60-odd-year-old woman.
Diana crept forward and put her hand on the doorknob, still holding the stoker checked over her shoulder with the other hand. She took a deep breath, held it for a few seconds, and then opened the door. Several things happened next in extremely quick succession. First, Diana leapt backward. Second, the door swung open. Third, Eloise came stumbling into the room and fourth, Diana swung the stoker directly at her head.
After a brief moment of panic, Diana lined up for another swing as Eloise turned her sightless eyes toward her prey. Time slowed down for Richard as he watched his mother lope toward his wife. It seemed as though he had all the time in the world to watch the beads of sweat rolling down Diana's face, or to see the stains on his mother's dress. And yet all too soon, the situation resolved itself in the blink of an eye. Diana swung again.
This time she connected and, the iron of the stoker being considerably sturdier than Eloise's head, cracked her skull wide open, spilling yellow goo in an arc across the floor. Richard looked on, frozen. Eloise, even minus a quarter of her head, had no such qualms and wasted no time in resuming her shambling walk toward Diana, her remaining teeth gnashing in anticipation of tasting supple flesh.
"Diana!" Richard called out, clutching their infant son.
"Yes, I know, darling," she responded from between gritted teeth as she pulled back the stoker, lined it up and then thrust it forward, impaling Eloise with it like a sword. The undead mother twitched, yanking the stoker from Diana's grasp, and resumed her shambling stride, the iron rod still stuck inside her body cavity. Diana backed up, eyes wide.
"Now what?" She asked her husband, a note of panic creeping into her voice.
Richard cast his gaze all over the room, trying desperately to find something useful, but he kept getting distracted by a strange, rather pleasant smell coming from his son, Jonathan.
"Richard!" His wife yelled, her back against the wall as Eloise advanced inexorably. "Help me!"
Spurred to action, he put their son down in the corner and faced off with his mother, putting his fists up in front of him like a boxer.
"Mother," he said. She ignored him, so he raised his voice. "Mother! Leave my wife alone this instant!" The undead woman, attracted to the sound of his voice, finally turned and regarded him. Mother and son, separated by the gulf of life, stared at each other in silence. Richard, his fists before him, had no idea what to do.
Diana, on the other hand, knew exactly what to do. She quietly retrieved a heavy, marble bookend from their shelf, cocked her arm back and hit Eloise in the back of the head with all of her strength. Diana's mother-in-law fell to the ground, and with the ferocity of a jungle cat, Richard's wife leapt on top of her and began slamming the bookend into her head, again and again, until nothing was left that could in any way be construed as a face.
Richard watched with a blank, stunned expression on his face as his wife smeared his mother all over their bedroom floor. Breathing heavily, Diana stood up and wiped the sweat from her brow. Her nightgown was splattered in red and yellow ooze, and she looked a rather frightful sight. Despite that, Richard thought she'd never looked more beautiful.
"Diana, are you… okay?"
"Oh, Richard!" she said, all passion and anger gone, as she threw herself into his arms. They embraced for some time, shaking like leaves in the wind, trying desperately to keep the gruesome reality of their situation at bay for just a few moments.
"Where's Jonathan?" she said, when they disengaged.
Richard scooped their child up from where he'd left him and handed him to his wife, once again noticing that pleasant smell, stronger this time.
"Have you been spraying our boy with something?" Richard asked. "He smells… peculiar."
Diana held him up and sniffed him. "I don't smell anything. Are you feeling alright?"
"Yes, yes, quite fine, darling," he said distractedly. The smell was beginning to drive him crazy. It was almost as if the very mystery of the meaning of life could be solved if only he could discover the source of that smell. It was a strange meaty, cinnamon-y odor, unlike anything he had ever smelled before but yet very pleasant. He stepped forward and sniffed Diana. "It's coming from you, too."
"Richard, you don't look very good. Perhaps you'd better sit down," she said.
"Yes, perhaps… Perhaps I'd better sit down." A sensation had begun to rise in his stomach. An incredible warmth was building up in the center of his body and slowly spreading outwards into his legs and chest. It felt quite good, actually, a sort of comforting numbness that eased away all of the pain.
"You know, darling," Richard said, still standing, as his tongue began to go numb. "I feel rather odd." The word 'odd' came out slurred, and the world lost focus and became blurry. He could tell that Diana was saying something to him, but he couldn't tell what; he was lost in the smell. As the numbness spread out, the odor got stronger and stronger in his nostrils until it overwhelmed his capacity for reason. At the same time, he experienced a revelation: Diana and Jonathan were the smell. The odors of their skin, muscles, fat, sinews and brains were all melting together into a thoroughly delicious potpourri.
Perhaps… Perhaps he could just have a small taste. Something that smelled so good could hardly taste bad, could it? Beside, he had supported his wife for years. She couldn't possibly refuse to give him just a small taste of her flesh. She had so much of it, after all, that she wouldn't miss just a small piece.
He stepped toward her, but she retreated back a step. He took another step and she retreated again. This was very frustrating for Richard. Didn't she know he would never hurt her? He tried to tell her that he loved her, and that he only wanted a small piece of an arm and maybe just a tiny little bit of brain juice to wash it down, but his mouth wouldn't work and the words didn't come out.
Diana shouted at him, tears welling up in her eyes. He didn't understand what she was getting so upset about… Marriage is all about give and take. He tried to tell her that, but she just took their child and turned and ran away. Richard stared after her, dejected. Did all of their years of marriage mean nothing to her? Didn't she love him?
After a short interlude of feeling bad for himself, Richard roused himself and staggered downstairs. He could smell that they had gone that way, her and their son. Their scents beckoned him to follow, and follow he did. In short order he was disappointed again, though, because he found that they had left the house entirely; abandoned him. There was, of course, nothing for it but to venture outside. The odor of living flesh was drawing him on and the empty pit where his stomach used to be wouldn't allow him to tarry.
He stepped out into a fine Spring day and was nearly overwhelmed by the smell of life. It was everywhere and it smelled like heaven, driving every thought of his wife and child from his head. A young boy was standing on the corner hawking newspapers, and he radiated the smell of pure divinity. Richard couldn't stop himself from walking over for a quick bite.
The boy, holding a paper with the headline, "The End of Days?", was taken by surprise when Richard grabbed his arm and bit it, screaming a tortured moan of anguish. Richard's teeth bit right through the muscles and the boy's flesh nearly melted in his mouth, sending him into paroxysms of pleasure. The screams were like music to his ears.
The boy, bleeding profusely, fell onto the ground and rolled away from Richard. Cradling his arm to his chest, he shouted incoherent words at him and then ran off. Richard didn't care… The taste that spread through his mouth was so wonderful that he just stood there, soaking it in. After that, he just staggered around in a daze, the hunger in his stomach pushing him onward and onward in search of more food.
Soon he started seeing more of his kind walking the streets. The others had a sort of rancid odor so they typically avoided each other, moving on in search of better prospects. Once, Richard even saw the Bishop from the line outside of Dr. Nebo's house. The man ran down the street, bleeding from wounds on his arms and shoulders. Richard chased him for a short while but eventually lost interest. The city itself was falling apart at the seams as every person raised from the dead turned into a flesh-eating monster, and then those who were bitten did the same. The numbers of the undead rose exponentially, and before long there were more people dead than alive in London.
Richard, for his part, soon grew so hungry that nothing could sate him. He snacked on a few fresh corpses that he encountered along his way but eventually found himself back at his old house, the only place where he had ever known happiness. Shambling inside, he sat down in his favorite chair in the parlor and prepared to wait out the apocalypse.
The living, meanwhile, started to organize a defense and began to cremate as many bodies as they could find. The ashes, thick and white like snow, billowed up into the air from the crematories and then faintly fell, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the undead.