Next, After Lucifer by Daniel Rhodes [Neil McMahon] (1987).
I began reading Daniel Rhodes's 1987 novel Next, After Lucifer as a break after reading five novels by Ramsey Campbell in ten days.
In 1988 the paperback of Next, After Lucifer [from Tor] was everywhere, and it has always been at the back of my mind. Tales written under the inspiration of M.R.James are few and far between when compared to those inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, of which there is a seemingly endless supply. I am always on the lookout for something Jamesian.
Next, After Lucifer is best described as sub-Jamesian; it is a novel hard on the reader's patience. With the best will in the world, I almost gave up in defeat after reading clangers like this:
The brisk slap of Linden's sandals brought his head around. She was a striking rather than pretty woman, her face a little too severe, body a little too spare, except for the generous breasts nature had almost cruelly given her; a malformation of mysterious organs would keep her forever childless.
The persevering reader is soon rewarded, however. Medievalist John McTell and his wife Linden arrive at Saint-Bertrand-sur-Seyre in the Alpes Maritimes for a few months of vacation.
John is fascinated by a local Templar fortress ruin. By chapter three, he is already entering the cathedral of Saint-Bertrand to take a look around.
Inside, the coolness was refreshing. McTell walked through the nave, conscious of his echoing footfalls in the deserted building. Apparently the village was far enough off the beaten track so the cure feared neither theft nor vandalism, at least in daytime. The ceiling was high and groined, supported by fluted stone pillars; the aisles narrow, the altar simple, the walls hung with the Stations of the Cross. Not until he reached the farthest corner of the south transept did he come upon anything of real interest.
At first glance, there was only a dusty triptych screen presenting some sort of pageantry. He quickly dismissed it, like the windows, as an imitation from a later century. But perhaps because it seemed so oddly out of place, he was impelled to peer behind it. Hardly visible in the darkness of the comer, about waist-high, was some sort of carving on the stone wall. He glanced around; the church was still empty. He edged behind the screen.
Immediately his excitement jumped—instinct and judgment both assured him that the work was early and genuine—and rose again when he bent to examine it. The carving was small and crude—done hurriedly, he had the sense, on a single block of stone—and time had taken its toll. But the scene had been rendered with obvious ability and care.
He was able to make out two figures for certain, and what might have been a third. The first, at the far right, was clearly of a man fleeing, with arms outstretched and mouth open wide in exaggerated horror. The second was of his pursuer, and this portrayal caused McTell to study the block intently for some time. The figure was very short and squat, muffled entirely in a hooded garment. A single limb was extended in pursuit; McTell would not have called it an arm because he was not at all sure the creature was intended to be human.
The third figure was only a vague outline in the background. It might have been that of a tall man, standing on a hillock, watching. Behind him rose a mountain with a building on it. Beneath the scene were letters that McTell had to squint at to make out:
QUI DEMONIA EFFUGAS
ORA PRO NOBIS
In smaller letters still was added the legend:
ann. Incarnationis veri Dom. mcccvii
D. f. descrip sit
"Saint Bertrand, who makest demons to flee, pray for us," McTell said quietly. "Incarnation of the true Lord, 1307. D. f. hath drawn this."
He straightened up and looked around. The church was very still. Though illustrations portraying the miracles of a saint were not unusual, he had never seen anything like this. Then he noticed that the small window in front of him had side panes of clear glass. Although the glass had become viscous over the years, his recognition of the scene outside was instantaneous. He was facing south, as had the sculptor, who had etched the landscape into the stone precisely as he saw it. The mountain in the background was Montsevrain, visible in the distance; the building atop it, the fortress as it must have appeared seven centuries ago, before decay had set in.
That much of the scene, then, was from life. And the figures?
The pursuit was probably allegorical, he decided—the common-enough theme of Death hunting down the human soul, here in a somewhat offbeat representation. In any case, it was certainly worth a photograph. He took several with varying exposures, and was putting the Nikon away when he heard the echo of footsteps. Feeling like an intruder, he stepped quickly from behind the screen and walked to the nave to advertise his presence. The newcomer was a tiny wizened man in a beret and blue workman's smock. He gave McTell only a glance and a "Bonjour, monsieur," as he hurried back to the apse. A minute later he reappeared, carrying a pile of vestments.
"Excuse me," McTell said in French. "Are you by chance the sacristan?"
It had been McTell's experience that while the French would condescend almost graciously to stragglers with their tongue, they tended to be outraged at foreigners who dared to speak it well. Or perhaps it was a thyroid condition that made the little man's eyes bulge.
"Yes, monsieur," he said. "I have kept this church these twenty-three years, and my father before me."
"Can you tell me anything about that carving?"
The old man's gaze followed McTell's pointing finger, then returned to his face, this time seeming reproachful, as if McTell had betrayed a trust. "Carving, monsieur?"
"The one behind the screen."
"Ah," the sacristan murmured. "Monsieur has examined our church closely. I fear I know little about such things."
Amused and irritated, McTell said, "Surely there must be a story to it."
The little man glanced at the screen, then shrugged. "Long ago there was a bad business with some wicked knights."
"The Templars of Montsevrain?" McTell said sharply.
"I know very little," the sacristan repeated. His eyes seemed in danger of popping from his head. "Now, if Monsieur will excuse me—" He held up the pile of clothes and edged toward the door.
McTell's hand had already gone to his pocket. "For your trouble."
The sacristan stared at the fifty-franc note, glanced quickly around the church, and set the vestments down on a pew. The bill vanished into his smock.
"It was their leader, the giant—" McTell did not quite catch the name; it sounded something like "Suloy." The little man had stepped close and was speaking in a low voice, looking furtively around. A bit melodramatic, McTell thought; amusement was gaining.
"He was the most evil man who ever lived, monsieur. Even now it is not good to speak his name. It is said that he made a bargain with the devil himself, that the devil granted him the power to command spirits. There was celui"—the word meant simply "the one," but the sacristan gestured nervously at the carving—"always with him. He had a magic book bound in human skin, and he killed people and drank their blood to appease the devil." His voice dropped to a whisper. "It is said that he could raise the dead."
McTell looked into the old man's eyes, and realized suddenly that he was genuinely frightened—that this was not a show for a tourist. The church was very quiet. Gently, he said, "And what happened to this gentleman?"
"Burned, monsieur, by the Inquisition," the sacristan declared. "But even death could not stop him. A group of priests had to"—here came a phrase McTell understood as bury the restless ghost—"and the doors of the cathedral were closed because evil had penetrated them."
Questions flared in his mind. What did it mean, "Even death could not stop him"? How could you bury a ghost? Who or what was this celui? And what was the origin of the carving?
But the old man had evidently decided he had given his fifty francs' worth of information. "Many thanks, monsieur," he said, backing away and picking up the vestments. His look of reproach was back, as if McTell's money had induced him to tell something he should not have.
This is a nice variation on "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook." "Count Magnus" makes an even bigger mark on the narrative, as McTell learns about the diabolic history of Belial-worshipping Templar Guilhem de Courdeval, who had a grimoire bound in the skin of a flayed heretic (and a tentacled familiar adopted during a secret pilgrimage.)
Rhodes also gives us (as an aside) a nice "Casting the Runes" -style anecdote:
"I've been thinking, old boy, about this occult business you seem to have on your mind. Remembered a story, an incident that happened to me long ago. Might give you something to chew on."
"I'm all ears," McTell said, trying to sound amused.
"I was just on the fringes of that sort of thing, you understand," Bertie began. "This must be more than thirty years ago now. There were a number of self-styled witches and occultists running around in those days. A Welshman with a wandering eye, I recall, who claimed to be a warlock; a widow who gave seances; that sort of thing." He took a cigarette from his case. As he replaced it, McTell noticed that the dinner jacket was shiny at the elbows.
"A man I knew in London arranged a little gathering featuring a so-called swami from India. You know, one of those chaps with the turban and caste mark on the forehead. Flowing robes, all that. You see them and think, Nothing but a sideshow fraud.
"Well, this fellow was of a different stamp. I knew the minute he walked into the room that he was an evil man. You could see it in his eyes, sense it around him like an aura. When he spoke, there was a greasy, ingratiating quality about it—as if his voice was somehow trying to feel its way inside you, to get control. Difficult to explain, but thoroughly unpleasant, take my word for it.
"Our host was a fellow named Parkins, I recall; sort of a silly, nervous type, always looking for some thrill or other. He was well-to-do, and had paid this swami to put on this show, you understand. Well, the swami came in—can't remember his name, one of those Indian ones full of rajs and goochs and such—and announced that he was going to summon a spirit. He arranged his apparatus on a table, some sort of wand, candles, various other gewgaws, and then spread a cloth on the floor. It had a circle embroidered on it, with various sorts of designs inside; I remember thinking that it must be a sort of Eastern version of a pentacle. He stood inside that circle and told us it would protect him from the spirit. The rest of us would be all right, he said, since we weren't dealing with it—as long as we didn't speak. If someone said a word, the spirit would turn on that person. Of course, we were all skeptical about the whole thing—jocular, even I, at least, didn't take the warning very seriously.
"The swami had Parkins turn out the lights, and lit the candles, and began to go through his mumbo jumbo, waving the wand, speaking some incomprehensible rot. We remained quietly jovial, thinking this was going to be your run-of-the-mill seance, that pretty soon the table would start thumping or something like that.
"Then it started to change."
Bertie dragged on his cigarette. His forehead was creased. McTell realized the others had gone silent and were listening too.
"The temperature began to drop. In a couple of minutes it was very cold, a clammy, nasty sort of chill. At the same time, the air started thickening. I don't really know how to describe it. There was an incredible sense of menace, as if this evil, insidious, terribly threatening presence were literally materializing in the room. I tell you, old man, never in my life have I experienced a sense of pure terror like that. Not fear for your body, or even of death. It's fear for whatever it is that makes you you—for the essence of your being. If you haven't experienced it, I don't think you can imagine it. The thing is, there's absolutely nothing you can do—you can't fight it and you can't hide.
Bertie glanced searchingly at McTell. He shook his head, not sure himself what he meant.
"It reached the point where it was really unbearable. I know I was on the edge of panic. The sense that at any second this thing was going to appear and—I don't know tear one's soul right out of the body.
"At last old Parkins leaped to his feet and screamed, 'Stop it, stop it this instant!'
"All that energy turned like that"—Bertie snapped his fingers—"into a sense of fury, of rage. Then it was gone. Poor old Parkins was pale and shaking—I imagine we all were—and the swami was absolutely livid. I remember distinctly that in the midst of the confusion, he pointed at Parkins and said something I couldn't hear, very rapid, very low, and then made some kind of sign with his hands. Then he gathered up his things and hurried off. Parkins was in quite a sweat, as you may imagine, and tried to stop him, but the swami refused to even look at him. I know Parkins tried to find him afterward."
"So Parkins was all right after all," McTell said.
"For a while, old man, for a while. We laughed it off with him, told him the whole thing was obviously a fraud—some sort of trick played by the swami to collect his money and get out before he had to deliver. There were some jokes about getting demon-proof locks for the doors, that sort of thing. We all went home, the days passed, the memory faded. At least it did for the rest of us.
"I didn't know Parkins well, but from what I gleaned afterward, things got rather worse for him. He had a growing sense of being watched and followed by something he couldn't see. In a few weeks the poor man was a wreck. Couldn t sleep, couldn't bear to be alone for an instant. He searched desperately for the swami—ads in the papers, rewards offered, even went so far as to hire a detective—but the man had vanished."
McTell glanced at the other faces. Linden was watching with her mouth slightly open. Skip as usual looked bland, and a little bored. Mona was leaning against a wall, arms folded, unimpressed. "So what happened to him?" she said.
Bertie exhaled a cloud of smoke. "Fell off the roof of his own house. He'd been dining out, took a taxi to the door, went on inside, and apparently he kept right on going up the stairs, clambered out a window onto the roof, and fell. Or leaped. Three stories, head first. Turned out that his valet had snuck out for a pint, so Parkins was unexpectedly alone in the house. It seemed clear from the signs he left—doors flung open, some blood from his hand on the window latch—that he'd run up the stairs in a wild dash."
"As if he'd been running from something," Linden said.
"Precisely, my dear." Bertie shrugged. "Of course, the police tried to put it down to an intruder, but there were no signs of one. Then it was generally decided that Parkins was an impressionable sort, and the swami's threat had conjured up some imagined menace that finally drove him mad. Like they say voodoo works. It came out later that he'd gone to see his minister with the tale, and the minister suggested with some amusement that he try a therapist. That was enough to brand him as unstable as far as the police were concerned. Case was closed."
"How awful," Linden said. "That poor man."
"Yes," Bertie said, drawing out the word. For a moment no one spoke.
It isn't long before John McTell's attempts to translate the grimoire produce horrific manifestations that take action against those he dislikes. Like his sister-in-law.
....Well, this business with McTell was not over yet. She had seen the look in his eyes as he was leaving. He was thinking about it, and one thing she knew: When a man got to that point, it did not take much—a few well-placed touches—to push him over the edge. She could waylay him when he came home; Skip would undoubtedly stumble drunkenly to bed, and Linden was too naive to wait up and chaperone. A whispery voice in Mona's mind clucked its tongue, reminding her that McTell was, after all, her sister's husband. She shrugged petulantly, said "half-sister" aloud, and walked to the bar. Her head really was beginning to ache. She poured another drink, inhaled another line of cocaine, paced the room. The jazz on the stereo was suddenly irritating. She went to turn it off.
As she walked back, she saw that the television was on.
She frowned; it was odd that she had not noticed it, but then, no sound was coming out. The picture on the screen seemed to be an old black-and-white movie, a horror film from the looks of it. The scene was a nighttime landscape, lit by a nearly full moon; on a mountaintop in the background was a silhouetted ruin that looked vaguely familiar. Nothing was moving; either the shot was still or, in typical French fashion, something had gone wrong with the transmission. Yes, now there were words across the screen, an apology about technical difficulties, no doubt. But they were written in an odd Gothic script. She bent close, making them out as Qui est celui qui vient?
"Who is this one that comes?" she said. The sound of her voice made her suddenly conscious of the silence around her, of her aloneness.
And now there did seem to be a shape moving on the screen—small, dark, barely visible, scuttling through the brush high on the mountainside. There was something about the way it moved that she did not like at all, even on film. Abruptly, the dreams that had been haunting her nights flickered in swift sequence through her mind. She straightened up uneasily and reached for the on-off button. When she touched it, she received a tiny shock, the way she might from a wall switch when in stocking feet.
But the set was already off.
She looked quickly back at the screen. The picture was gone.
Some sort of satellite ghost, then, creating a static electricity. Who knew what they were doing these days, with all the different kinds of waves? She laughed nervously and went again to the bar to freshen her drink, ignoring the ever-weaker voice that warned her to quit. The lines of cocaine waiting on the mirror were irresistible. She prowled the room aimlessly, examining coffee-table books, toying with a backgammon board, flicking through the record collection. Dancing couples in smoke-filled rooms intertwined on the album covers. A stunning black woman, her nude body adroitly shadowed by the photographer, appealed with gazellelike eyes to a silhouetted clarinet player. The image brought a powerful charge of pure raw lust: the ache for a man who would not just fall into bed with a mumbled good-night, but hold her, talk to her, fuck her. She thought again of McTell by the pool, how close they had been. Wet, slippery bodies brushing in the dark water. Secret touches, whispers, quick and sudden heat, the urgency in the fear of being discovered . . .
She stepped out into the sultry night. The water in the pool lapped faintly against the sides—a sexual, seductive sound. She kicked off a sandal, dipped her foot. It was blood warm.
In a few seconds her clothes lay on the deck. She stood posed in the icy, silvery moonlight, breasts thrust forward—filled with the awareness of her own sensuality. Not McTell, not any man, could resist her like this. A sudden breeze sent a rush of cooler air against her skin, stiffening her nipples. She gripped her hair, twisted it into a knot atop her head, and with slow steps descended into the pool. The water slid tantalizingly up her thighs. She pushed off, glided silently, dreamily into the night.
Then, from far away, came a faint haunting whistle. She twisted to face it; it was like nothing she had ever heard—soft, piercing, infinitely mournful. Her gaze moved over a barren knoll perhaps a hundred yards away.
A figure stood on it.
She sucked in her breath. Her movement splashed water in her eyes; she shook her head to clear them.
The figure was gone.
She continued to stare, treading water. Moonlight fell full upon the bare knoll. Where could he have gone? The impression had been so clear: a big, tall man, legs braced wide apart, both hands clasped upon some sort of staff.
Her breath was coming quick and shallow. The water was no longer welcoming, but chilly, black, caressing her obscenely. She paddled hurriedly to the edge, pulled herself out. The rising wind gave her goose bumps, lifted the fine hairs on her arms. Clothes clutched to her breasts, she hurried inside, locking the door. There were other doors, several, never locked—in her confusion she could not even remember them all. She started for the main one, but the hallway was suddenly endless and dark, the whole house vast and empty.
She stood still, calming the pounding of her heart. Well, what if it had been a man? He would probably not even have seen her, and in any case, there was no violence around here. Someone taking a shortcut home, or at worst, a poacher. She started for the stairs; she was cold and wanted a big fluffy towel. Abruptly she paused, swallowing hard at the image that had leaped into her mind, the television screen with its Gothic script: Qui est celui qui vient?
A gust of wind rustled the shrubbery outside. She climbed on, bare feet making only a whisper on the thick carpet. Moonlight streamed through the octagonal panes of the French doors opening onto the second-story deck. From there she would be able to see the knoll again. Slowly, reluctantly, she moved toward the doors. Leaving them open, she stepped out into the wind. It blew her hair, tossed the dark treetops.
Who is this one that comes?
Timidly, she gripped the iron railing and peered around the building's corner.
Her mouth opened in an O. The man was back.
The moonlight glinted off the stick he leaned on—not a stick, but a sword as tall as his chest. He seemed to be wearing armor and a headdress of mail. His stance held an indescribable menace. Wind wrapped suddenly around her body like grasping fingers. Something clicked behind her. She whirled. The doors had blown closed.
She spun back. The man's head was turned to the side, strong profile clearly silhouetted. He was watching something. Dazed, she turned her gaze to follow his.
A choked cry broke from her lips.
The shape was squat and dark, moving with impossible speed—not directly toward her, but in a zigzag,, as if following a spoor. It appeared briefly in a clearing, became a rapid blurred ink spot against the foliage, appeared again. At the sound of her cry it stopped instantly and straightened up. She choked off her breath in her throat. It stood waist-high, wrapped in some sort of hooded cloak. For seconds it cast its small head about, like a weasel sniffing the wind, stubby arms held rigid before it; and at last came the distant understanding of what the television had been showing her.
It will be up to village priest Etien Boudrie and the local doctor's Romany wife Melusine Davarre to stand against the forces McTell has unleashed.
Next, After Lucifer is a robustly juicy novel, and it is exciting to see the Jamesian motifs renewed in the interest of fueling a mass market potboiler.
1 March 2018