“I’ve always said it was a great big rat. You know the ones. Big as a puppy. A Parisian tourist terrifier. But any rat looks big when you find it lying dead in a box on your doorstep. It makes an impression.”
I picked up the block of Perspex from my desk and leaned back in my creaking leather chair.
“As you can see, it’s probably only about average size, if that. Although it looks much smaller stripped of flesh and fur.”
The shearing jaws were set in a perfect pincer. The thin spine and the ribs so fine, they wouldn’t have looked out of place lying on greasy newspaper with batter scraps and a smear of tomato sauce. The tail trailed through the transparent block, doubling the length of the skeleton and, I had always suspected, the price of the preservation.
“And of course, you found out who sent it to you.”
I started to get a lot of letters shortly after the publication of the first book. They meant a lot to me. In those days mail still generally meant receiving something written on actual paper. Tactile evidence of connections made. They were collected by Nocturandom, my publishers at the time, and dropped off at the flat. I received unreadably large bundles of gushing praise, ego massaging attention and outraged vitriol. There was quite a bit of erotic fan fiction too, which also often included gushing, massage and various outrages. Sometimes the publishers put them in a shoebox, or some similar sized container, so I hadn’t thought it unusual that there was a box sitting waiting for me on the doorstep.
“Lucifer’s Gate struck a chord with so many people. Given the subject matter, you can’t have been surprised that it appealed to some … unconventional types.”
“Oh no. It made my name. Thank God for the unconventional types, the little book-buying loons. Where would I be without them? Not here, that’s for sure.”
The thick burgundy leather of my writing chair creaked as I rocked back and looked around my office. Books and awards jostled for space on the shelves that lined the walls. Skulls featured heavily, as did angular lumps of Perspex and glass, but creepy little Kenneth was the only one that combined the two.
“To be honest I nearly soiled myself when I looked inside the box. The weight of it felt odd, but it looked a bit like something you might put a cake in. I opened it on the kitchen table anticipating nothing more horrifying than impending cake fuelled self-loathing. When I lifted the lid I shrieked like a Bee Gee. I ran to the bathroom with an urgency known only to a man who owns a single pair of jeans, and no washing machine.”
“And look at you now.”
“Yes. A washing machine, and a house with room to put one, has since been purchased. As has an auxiliary pair of jeans you’ll be glad to hear.”
“So, as you prepare for the release of the twenty fifth anniversary edition of Lucifer’s Gate, is there anything you’d like to say to the person who left you the rat?”
“Thank you. For the publicity, for the love, however oddly expressed. The fright was good for me too, always good to remember the feeling you’re trying to conjure. After the success of Gate there were loads of interview requests. My rat anecdote got rolled out a good few times. It spread like the plague. Well-meaning fans seemed to think it was an invitation to deliver cadaverous creatures to the publishers’ office. So, I am actually thankful, but not so much for the copycats. Or the copyrats.”
I spun in the chair and looked at the screen on my desk. The cursor blinked at the top of an empty page.
“A few more things turned up at the flat. I suppose I shouldn’t grumble; I got the idea for ‘Wind in the Gallows’ when I found a badger in a bag for life. But then, when the donkey turned up the only thing it inspired me to do was move house.”
“You weren’t tempted to keep any of the other ‘presents’ then?”
“No. I suspect that most of the deliveries were made by misguided fans, but I never warmed to the idea of returning home to find a stiffened squirrel protruding from the letterbox. I would have needed to keep a taxidermist on retainer to deal with the amount I was sent. This place would have looked like the Natural History Museum. I had to get the RSPCA involved in the end, I donated a portion of the profits from Lucifer’s Swarm to them. We appealed to all of the fans to stop doing it, and thankfully they did, mostly. The bandwagon stopped rolling before it ran over any more innocent critters. My agent still occasionally gets a hamster in a jiffy bag, but the advent of social media seems to have given the fans a less, er… visceral mode of self-expression. Anyway, none of them had the impact of that first one.”
I looked back at the long cuboid of Perspex suspending the skeleton. She had laughed when I told her I had named it Kenneth.
She had approached the desk hours after the signing had started. It was not my first book signing, but I was still stunned by the sight of people assembling to meet me, to buy something I had imagined. The queue had stretched out of the bookshop and down the busy high street. Some of the fans had come in costume. Home-made versions of my own characters filed past me. The pile of books, Lucifer’s Patent, the third in the trilogy, had steadily shrunk, carried away by the protagonists made real. I smiled and shook hands, accepted requests for dedications ranging from the mundane to the surreal. Some of them had been downright obscene.
One beaming fan had asked for a very specific message to be written into a speech bubble above a skilfully drawn cartoon of yours truly and themselves in a biologically implausible position. I had initially demurred, only to be immediately presented with an undecorated copy to sign. Their beam didn’t even flicker and I had no doubt that the image would be added to this copy later, putting ‘My biggest fan’ back into their desired context. Bested, I’d signed the first copy too, embarrassed but secretly flattered.
I was still happy to be there, but was beginning to tire by the time she got to the front of the queue.
I’ve recalled the sight of her cautiously approaching the table many times over the years. She wasn’t in costume; I barely have any recollection at all of what she was wearing. I remember the way she held the book, clamped to her chest under folded arms. She smelled of cold air and hygiene. A sharp, black tattooed line poked out beyond the edge of her cardigan, (or was it a coat, or a shirt?) and crept along her collar bone. I wondered where the line went, why it was there.
She looked at me so earnestly that I had not doubted her for a second when she admitted that it had been her that left the rat on my doorstep all those years before. She was nervous, she was sorry. She had explained that it had been a difficult time for her, a time that my books had helped her navigate. It was meant as a gift, and one that had made perfect sense to her, at the time.
I smiled. I told her the story of my reaction on discovering the contents of the box. I told her about some of the more bizarre copycat efforts, but admitted that the whole affair had provided me with a ton of inspiration and interview-friendly anecdotes. She’d looked into my eyes and smiled at this. A small shy smile. She was astonished to learn that the preserved skeleton now kept me company as I wrote and she said that she could think of nothing better. The shuffling queue behind her broke the spell of the moment. I signed her copy:
To Alexandra, thanks for the inspiRATion! Love, Edgar Clay.
It was the best I could do at the time, but she laughed, kissed the book and disappeared through the crowd.
“You’re looking very well if you don’t mind me saying.”
“Oh, well, thank you very much,” I shifted in my seat leaving the bookshop in its own decade and returning to my writing room.
“The money from the film rights has funded a much-needed personal trainer. I should write a character based on him. He’s a demon who is summoned by an ancient rite involving the consumption of pies. He turns up and inflicts pain and expects me to pay for the privilege. He tortures me by looking better than I will ever look, but forcing me to keep straining to emulate his own unachievable levels of vascularity. It’s more nightmarish than anything I’ve come up with before. He was here yesterday. I’m stiffer than Kenneth.”
“So, the doyen of gothic horror is a pretty conventional guy these days?”
“I always was! I found the things I wrote horrifying, how could I do it if I didn’t? How did I know they were scary? Because they scared the shit out of me. This thing still gives me the creeps.” I picked up a sheaf of papers and dropped them over an indignant Kenneth. “I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t suit black. I don’t drink red wine from a skull. The most horrifying thing I do is eat peanut butter straight from the jar. I keep jam in the fridge, just to be on the safe side. I have a favourite burner on the hob. I still unplug the television at night because a fireman told me it was a good idea when I was at primary school.”
“So it must have been quite a shock when you got the letter from the solicitor?”
“Yes, yes it was. I knew there were some personal troubles; there were certainly hints that that was the case, but it still came as a shock.”
“As you know, there were rumours that you had reacted badly. That you had experienced some difficulties yourself.”
“Oh, I can understand perfectly how the rumour of my illness got about. I have even heard on good authority that I had gone quite mad. The report of my insanity was an exaggeration, to butcher Twain. I’d been under a huge amount of stress for a considerable time, trying to finish the last book in the series, and no sooner was it out there than the letter arrived. It was a testing time but no, don’t worry, the jam’s still in the fridge.”
“Quite a thing though, for a person to leave you their own dead body in their will.”
“Yes, it certainly was. Quite a thing. Something of an escalation from a rat in a cake box.”
Up until then the only thing I’d ever been bequeathed was a great uncle’s collection of culturally insensitive figurines. There were obviously legal issues to be dealt with. About the body, not the figurines - they weren’t that bad, but he was a man of his time.
I looked again at the cursor winking at the top of the empty white screen. Becoming the custodian of the corpse of a deceased fan was quite a responsibility. I’d felt obliged to honour what had been requested in the will, it seemed rude not to. Mind you, the preservation was a bit more complex than getting a taxidermist to put Kennus kennus in Perspex.
“Still, all’s well that ends well. Here we are.”
“Here we are.”
“You’ve got money, fame, critical acclaim and love. Unending love. But you’ve paid a price. A high price. So, was it worth it?”
“I’m really not sure, what do you think?” I said, looking across the desk to where Alexandra sat stiffly posed in her own leather chair. She stared glassily back, but seemed to have nothing more to say. I looked at the bluing line that crept along her clavicle. She smelled of cold air and hygiene and always wore a small shy smile.