Contest #213 shortlist ⭐️

57 comments

Horror Historical Fiction Romance

This story contains sensitive content

CW: body horror, gore.

Jacques heard someone enter his 5th floor studio, heard the heavy groan of the old wood door, heard the tired thing thunder back into place, slamming with a finality that said ‘no more’, and it was the only thing that stopped him from pitching forward from his balcony into the street below.

Rich heels snapped against the scuffed parquet floor, and the boards underneath strained against the weight of every step the stranger took.

“Hello?” came a man’s voice.

Jacques relit his cigarette for the fourth time and looked out over Lyon. His studio was the top floor of a tower, sitting in the crook of the Saône, and he had a lovely view of the Pont de la Feuillée. They still called it ‘the new bridge’ even though it had been reconstructed nearly a decade ago, in 1841. He could just see one of his lions from this angle – a stoic beast, carved of marble, watching over the people of the city as they crossed the bridge. One of his first commissions.

“Hello?” came the man’s voice again. It was curious but calm, familiar but unrecognizable. A voice that tugged at his memories and hid at the corner of his eye.

Jacques huffed. If he should fall from his balcony, he’d tumble five floors and strike the cobble below. With luck, head first. But, it would leave a mess for his landlady. And besides, he had company. Ah, but the Pont de la Feuillée – if he snuck out at night, he might throw himself to the mercy of the Saône, and let it wash away the greyness of his life.

“Hello? Jacques?”

“Out here.” He flicked the last of his cigarette over the railing. “On the balcony.”

The steps drew close, and only once Jacques felt the presence of another beside him did he turn. And Jacques startled.

Beside him stood a man dressed head to toe in rich reds and blacks, accented with gold buttons and chains and jewellery. His boots were buckled with gold, his hands were covered in black satin gloves, and upon his head sat a broad-rimmed hat with a white feather in the band. The clothes screamed wealth, if not style – though perhaps they whispered a style to come.

“M. Desrosiers!” Jacques cleared his throat. “Pardon me, sir, but I was not expecting you.”

“No matter.” M. Desrosiers smiled and patted Jacques on the shoulder. “I’ve come to take a look on my commission.”

Something cold shifted in Jacques’ bowels. The commission: it was the one thing he didn’t want to think about, and the one thing he couldn’t stop thinking about. It was beautiful, it was hideous, and for better and worse, it was the only thing that kept him alive.

If it hadn’t been for the chance encounter with M. Desrosiers three months ago, on a moonless foggy night, when Jacques planned to get well drunk and then to go looking for trouble, whether in the dark alleys of Lyon or in the waters of the Saône or by means of the loaded pistol he kept in his pocket, he might finally have been done with it all. But when they ran into each other just outside Fournier’s, M. Desrosiers insisted they enter the bar and share wine. And when Jacques told him of his misery, of his heartache, of giving up, M. Desrosiers insisted further.

“I can’t do it anymore,” Jacques said. “Every breath I draw is torture. All I want is to hold her again, to feel her skin against mine.”

“There’s no greater pain, than that of the heart,” said M. Desrosiers. “But this is the well, from which we draw art. Tell me, what do you intend to do with the piece?”

“I don’t know. I will smash it.”

“Impossible,” M. Desrosiers said. There was no alarm in his voice, just a statement of fact. “I’ll not hear another word. I’m commissioning you to finish it.” And the price he offered, coupled with the wine, was not something Jacques could refuse.

Jacques lit another cigarette. “This way, sir.” He took his patron to his workshop, a dusty place filled with statuettes, busts, blocks of various stones and wooden frames, a place dominated by a column, of a man’s height, covered by a white cloth that promised severe edges. A stool sat before it, and hammers and chisels littered the floor, scattered like afterthoughts.

“Show me,” said M. Desrosiers, circling the covered statue.

“It’s not finished.” It cannot possibly be finished.

“Art never is. Reveal it.”

“It’s grotesque.” A cruel mockery.

“Impossible. Your hands are magical – they sing to the stone. Come, do not keep me waiting.”

Jacques tarried only a moment longer, and then listlessly he pulled at the cloth.

There was a radiant gasp. “Marvelous,” said M. Desrosiers. “She’s simply magnificent.” He touched the cold marble, placed his hands on the midriff, ran his palm up the perfectly smooth abdomen. Cupped an ice cold breast.

Jacques felt his throat harden.

“Mm,” said M. Desrosiers, his thumb and forefinger cradling a nipple. “Such attention to detail! So like the real thing!” His hand slid to the abdomen again, and then began sliding lower, following her contours, following the map of her muscles and flesh, lower, ever lower–

“Sir!” Jacques grabbed the other’s hand. “Sir, please. It’s unfinished. Very delicate.”

M. Desrosiers locked eyes with him for just a moment, but then a wide grin bloomed on his face. “Of course! Of course! How boorish of me to interfere with the genesis of art. But I tell you, you have made an exquisite piece here. It’s so like life.”

Jacques felt the cold in his guts roil. He beheld the work that consumed him: the statue of Camille. The torso of Camille, rather. She stood on the stumps of her hips and she had no arms. Neither had he been able to bring himself to carving her head, her precious face. Not yet. Not ever, perhaps.

But lifelike? Yes, Jacques had to admit that was true. He knew the map of her. His fingers had traced her every path, and he’d drunk deeply of her, gotten lost in her shallows. He couldn’t count the nights they’d spent in soft embrace, or the fervent daylight moments they’d stolen together. There was no greater love, he knew, and she was forevermore his heart.

It was M. Desrosiers that had introduced them. M. Desrosiers, his enigmatic patron, the man who discovered Jacques, who secured his first commissions and helped him build a name for himself. The man convinced of magic hands, convinced that there was nothing they could not sculpt. The man who knew very well what he was doing, when he brought Jacques and Camille together, and then left them alone.

Ah, but this! This cold, dead stone – it merely looked like Camille, once. Looked like her, before her death, before her murder. It was hard and unyielding, and had none of the vibrant warmth of the real thing, of his muse. This – this was a horrid effigy and no more.

“You have outdone yourself,” M. Desrosiers said. “Truly, your work honours my niece.”

“It’s unfinished,” Jacques whispered.

“I have a hunch it soon will be. I’ve a sense for these things, as you know. No magic hands myself, but a sense about art, yes. Now come, we will celebrate your progress and looming breakthrough.”

M. Desrosiers brought libations. They started with wine and moved on to absinthe, and all the while M. Desrosiers talked about his views on art, and how through it, he firmly believed, man could pierce the veil.

“Through force of will alone,” he said, “to create. Like God.” Jacques’ vision swam but M. Desrosiers seemed cogent no matter how much he downed. “But the conditions must be right. We must truly want it, as only the empty heart of the artist wants.”

“Soon,” M. Desrosiers said. “You are my most prized sculptor in all of my stables. Soon, you will prevail. I don’t doubt it. Now, I leave you to it.”

Jacques finished what remained of the bottles after his guest departed, deep in the black of night. The man was strange, and always appeared at just the right time, or just the wrong time. It was M. Desrosiers that introduced him to Camille, and then later, introduced him to the news of her death. It was he that found her. Strangled, they said, among the rose bushes on the family estate. The murderer, never found.

It was he… Jacques didn’t know if it was he. M. Desrosiers was the last to see her alive – that didn’t mean anything. Besides, it was disrespectful to harbour such suspicions about the man who funded him. Besides, it was too terrible to consider, if. If M. Desrosiers had played a role. If instead of doing something about it, Jacques had merely taken those funds.

Jacques downed the rest of the absinthe, and settled into fitful, fanciful dreams. In his mind Camille came back to him. He embraced her statue and in the moonlight, she turned into his lost love. They danced through the night and laughed and he twirled her faster and faster.

A thousand questions filled his mind – how had she returned? What was the other side like? Did she still love him? Did she know he still loved her? – but all were strangled by his pressing need to hold her, to have her. They loved like it was their last day, their first day, their only day; and he fell asleep in her embrace, tangled in sheets, feeling the warmth of her touch once more.

By morning, that touch had grown cold.

He awoke to a piercing headache and found himself draped over the unfinished statue, the headless, faceless cadaver, the armless and legless corpse. The pale imitation of a woman whose voice he could barely remember, whose touch he craved more than breath itself.

Cold, cold, cold.

But soft.

He gripped her shoulder and found his fingers sank into the marble, deformed it like – like skin. Grey skin, pallid skin, and webbed with dark veins, nearly black. He rose to sit, tried to lift her, and found she bent backwards, as though she had a spine. As though she were flesh. Dead flesh.

Jacques recoiled, swore. What was this? he wondered. Was this the drink? Had his mind finally broken?

That was when he noticed himself sinking into his bed.

His sheets, bunched in his tightly closed fist, had themselves grown soft and veiny, and covered in irregular tufts of hair. And the bed – a large slab of fibrous meat, heaved under his weight. His other hand sunk into it and something cracked. He pierced the surface, exposing a shattered, brittle bone, and a gush of foul blood.

Jacques screamed. The bed heaved under him as he leapt to the floor, and the parquet beneath his feet turned almost at once into a meshwork of impossible fingers, too long and too short, with too many joints, fused at all angles, all writhing and snapping and cracking under his panicked retreat.

Every tool he touched turned into a shivering mass of malformed bone and sinew, screaming of wrongness, and every wall he stumbled into blossomed into a rippling bruise, a labyrinthine organ, a tortured thing filled with fluids. The air in his studio grew hot and moist and blood and other things dribbled from a thousand open sores.

His shrieking unending, he charged for his door and the stairway beyond, but no sooner had he placed his hands on the heavy wood than it cracked into a web of ribs, hiding a colossal, misshapen heart of dozens of chambers, each beating a deafening drum and spurting gore everywhere.

Jacques turned and fled for his balcony – too late. The balcony itself became a broad, lolling tongue which rolled back and kept him inside, and thousands of jagged, splintered teeth erupted from both the ceiling and the floor.

The whole tower shuddered, ground against itself, writhed in fury and meaningless pain, and collapsed under its own weight. It pitched forward and splattered into the Saône, with a finality that said ‘no more’.

August 29, 2023 21:50

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57 comments

Chris Campbell
03:53 Sep 07, 2023

Michal, Shades of Poe with the surreal torment driving a person to madness. Of course, I blame the absinthe. Very dreamy stuff. When Monsieur Desrosiers manhandles the sculpture of his niece, I was torn between him being some form of demon, or just an old lech. Either one, he is a very sinister character that makes for a great antagonist in future stories. Great descriptive piece.

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Audrey Knox
18:17 Sep 08, 2023

Yes, the reveal that it was his niece made me gasp and then look at his actions with a whole new light. I enjoyed the mood and the descriptions in this story, and it's clear that the artist is dealing with a combination of his grief and his own sense of self-worth when he looks at the marble as lesser. I only wish that the premise of the story was introduced closer to the beginning, so we could have more time fully experiencing the horror of the curse.

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Michał Przywara
20:40 Sep 07, 2023

Yeah, Desrosiers is a fun antagonist. In the original drafts, he was some sort of supernatural being - or maybe a bearer and distributer of a curse - but frankly, I like him better as a completely mundane human. I think that makes him all the more unsettling. Thanks for the feedback, Chris! Glad you enjoyed it :)

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17:52 Sep 06, 2023

Oooohh very Edgar Allen poe ish Michal I really loved this one. You nailed this descent into insanity and the body horror descriptions are vivid stark and jarring all at once. Fabulous!

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Michał Przywara
21:42 Sep 06, 2023

Thanks, Derrick! There's been a couple comparisons to Poe - well, I won't say no to that :) I think the time and setting lend themselves well to certain kinds of horror, as well as those Bohemian artist tropes. Glad his descent worked out!

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D Gorman
20:03 Sep 05, 2023

I appreciate the courage to pursue such a wild premise, and in my opinion you’ve succeeded in writing a very engrossing, surreal, and entertaining story. The choices of character and setting were inspired and perfectly suited to the prompt choice you landed on, and your visual descriptions of Jacques’ powers at work at the conclusion of the story are very creative and visceral. I hope you had as much fun writing this as it appears. Nice work.

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Michał Przywara
21:49 Sep 06, 2023

Thanks! It was definitely an experimental story, but sometimes you have to take those risks. Although on a weekly story thing like this contest, worst case scenario is you waste a week, so the risk isn't that bad, and you can always learn something. It was fun to write though, and I'm glad you enjoyed it :) I appreciate the feedback!

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Amanda Lieser
23:56 Sep 20, 2023

Hi Michal, What an absolute delight to see a familiar name on the list of those shortlisted. Congratulations! This piece truly deserved it. One of my favorite books is “The Picture of Dorian Grey”. This piece was very reminiscent of that work to me. It carried the same heavy tones around life and death. It held the same beautiful imagery. And it provided us plenty of questions. What comes after death? What are we willing to do as the ones left behind? If we could control it all, what would we be willing to do? Nice work!!

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Michał Przywara
21:02 Sep 21, 2023

Thanks, Amanda! You know, I haven't actually read "The Picture of Dorian Grey" yet, but I did recently pick it up on a book binge, so it should make it to the top of the reading pile soon. I'm glad the story was enjoyable though, and prompted some questions. It's always nice when a story can do that. I appreciate the feedback!

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Story Time
17:21 Sep 13, 2023

This might be because I'm from Rhode Island, but I detected a lot of Lovecraft influence here, and it made for a fantastic read. Great job, Michal!

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Michał Przywara
20:36 Sep 13, 2023

Thanks, Kevin! There probably is some of his influence, as I do enjoy some of Lovecraft's work. There was something particular to that era of horror - maybe it was a rapidly changing and modernizing world, but still lacking such conveniences as cellphones which trivialize a lot of the unknown. I appreciate the feedback!

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Rebecca Miles
06:00 Sep 11, 2023

Why hello Mr Poe-wara! Beating tell tale hearts a plenty in this, drumming us on to ponder at what price art, and if we " pierce the veil" is there just a charnel house beneath. Oh that despicable Desrosiers; what an artfully intelligent yet devilish patron he is, pouring the absinthe to get his poor protégé to deliver. I suppose it's inevitable but it brought to mind Basil with Dorian. Historical details and horror aplenty; I'm still shuddering at the scene when Desrosiers fondles the statue, and of his niece, eugh, that is villainy deliver...

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Michał Przywara
21:44 Sep 12, 2023

Thanks, Rebecca! Seems my stories are often off by a week or two, as Desrosiers would easily fit the Monstrous prompt - oh well, not complaining, this one turned out fine :) I appreciate the feedback, and as always, enjoy hearing your take!

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Philip Ebuluofor
16:31 Sep 10, 2023

Congrats, great descriptive work.

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Michał Przywara
21:13 Sep 11, 2023

Thanks, Philip! Appreciate it :)

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08:45 Sep 10, 2023

Interesting experiment. You capture the voice of classic literature well, Mr Desrosiers seems to have a lot on his agenda. A character like this could work as a good villian, we're never really sure if we are just misunderstanding him or if he's truly evil. The comment section seems to explain the ending as a descent into insanity, wasn't sure that or if he was drugged. As a reader, watching how easily manipulated he is by flattery and wine from Desrosiers, adds another layer of interest in trying to figure it out. Good story!

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Michał Przywara
21:15 Sep 11, 2023

Thanks, Scott! Yeah, lots of interpretations of snapping, of going over the edge. As I was writing, it seemed there's much more to explore here and the 3k limit felt all too real - but it often does, and we must cut things :) That said, a part of me likes the visual of a literal tower of flesh, with a sculptor trapped in its maw, pitching into a river. I appreciate the feedback!

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Delbert Griffith
08:53 Sep 09, 2023

Congrats on the shortlist, my friend. Well deserved, of course. Great tale! Cheers!

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Michał Przywara
21:16 Sep 10, 2023

Thanks, Del! Appreciate it :)

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Ken Cartisano
05:43 Sep 09, 2023

Congrats on making the short list. I read some of the earlier comments and cannot disagree with anyone about anything. Not even you. This is excellent, riveting writing. I too like the idea that the 'antagonist' is a mere man. The absence of 'demons' in reality is more than made up for by the abundance of men, in reality. What I really found plausible was the character's revulsion to the effects of his touch. This is marvelous work and it deserves recognition. Glad you got some.

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Michał Przywara
20:52 Sep 10, 2023

Thanks, Ken! Yes, that's one advantage mundane horror will always have over supernatural horror - after all is said and done, we're left with the uncomfortable knowledge that "this could happen." I appreciate the feedback!

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Jonathan Page
05:05 Sep 09, 2023

Michal -- I just read this story again. Really love it! It definitely gives some creepy Poe vibes--especially the last line--and a surreal journey you bring the reader on. I love the repetition of "no more." I also like the note of the depressive quasi-suicidal question that hangs in the air from the first line to the last. The lovelorn element of Jaques is also prominent and visceral. The names, setting, strange love, fantastical element at the end, which is vivid--all are incredibly imaginative and well executed. The writing is cris...

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Michał Przywara
18:43 Sep 10, 2023

Thanks, Jonathan! I'm glad you enjoyed it, and that all those elements worked out. As I wrote, I did have in mind the older horrors - Poe, as some have said, and Robert Chambers - and it's good to hear some of that came across. I appreciate the feedback!

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AnneMarie Miles
15:31 Sep 08, 2023

Woohoo!! Congrats, friend! Well deserved shortlist. Happy Friday 🎉

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Michał Przywara
22:26 Sep 08, 2023

Thanks! And a congrats and a happy Friday to you too :D

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21:38 Sep 04, 2023

Very cool take on the pygmalion theme. A sculptor who can make his work come to life at a touch, but who teeters on the edge of ending his own life—what a nightmare when those things come together.

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Michał Przywara
00:38 Sep 06, 2023

Yeah, very much a nightmare! Being good at something, being skilled, is a wonderful thing - but it can consume us, can't it? There's more to life than just excelling. Thanks for the feedback, Anne!

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Nina H
13:16 Sep 04, 2023

How wonderfully perfect that his artistic hands that transform lifeless marble into “flesh”, then begin to turn everything to flesh with a touch. I love that. And foreshadowing the end right at the beginning with “no more”, and being pitched to the Saône was fantastic. Truly “Poe”fect tale, Michał!!!

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Michał Przywara
20:51 Sep 05, 2023

Thanks, Nina! Life imitates art imitates life? Something like that anyway. Definitely an odd Midas power, but it seemed fitting for the theme. Glad the tie-in between beginning and ending came through :) I appreciate the feedback!

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Marty B
05:17 Sep 04, 2023

I expected a version of a Pygmalion story, and his (headless) lady Galatea, and oh it took a dark turn! I felt M. Desrosiers drove this story, he was the one who was 'convinced of magic hands' of Jacques, introduced him to Camille (maybe murdered her too?) and brought the absinthe. He found a willing accomplice for his plans. Who is more evil, the one who opens the door, or the one who walks through it?

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Michał Przywara
20:52 Sep 05, 2023

Some great points, Marty! M. Desrosiers is definitely no innocent here. In the first drafts of the story, there was more of a deal-with-the-devil angle to things. That question about who's more evil - no idea, but exploring it is probably an endless source of stories :)

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Michał Przywara
20:52 Sep 05, 2023

Some great points, Marty! M. Desrosiers is definitely no innocent here. In the first drafts of the story, there was more of a deal-with-the-devil angle to things. That question about who's more evil - no idea, but exploring it is probably an endless source of stories :)

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Martin Ross
18:20 Sep 03, 2023

Holy crap, YES! That ending, I need to see filmed by Guillermo del Toro! I may be just a Poe boy, but that was some truly Grand Guignol! That’s your Bram Stoker Award winner. You should submit that to a horror anthology!

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Michał Przywara
20:54 Sep 05, 2023

Heh, thanks Martin! Glad you enjoyed it :) I do think the tower of flesh makes for a striking visual - I'll keep that in mind, about an anthology. I appreciate the feedback!

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Martin Ross
22:11 Sep 05, 2023

That tower will show up in my nightmares sometime soon. BTW, you ever watch Black Mirror? Great TV horror anthology on Netflix.

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Michał Przywara
21:54 Sep 06, 2023

People keep recommending it, but no, I've not seen it yet. May have to pull the trigger on it.

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Martin Ross
22:10 Sep 06, 2023

Great, funny, gruesome, apocalyptic season finale -- Britain in the late '70s, in the height of anti-immigrant bashing, and a demon like a genie in reverse. Filmed like a vintage Hammer horror flick.

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AnneMarie Miles
16:07 Sep 02, 2023

I see you are still turning out the most riveting and masterful stories, Michal! I really enjoyed the originality of this piece, especially since this prompt was the least fruitful for me. A sculptor drowning in grief will certainly find himself gone mad. And I like how you used Desrosiers as a catalyst for Jacques final upending. There is something quite sinister about Desrosiers from the start, especially those wandering, lingering hands of his.. very cringing and a great foreshadow to the reveal of Jacques suspicions. I'd bet money he d...

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Michał Przywara
19:36 Sep 04, 2023

Thanks, Anne Marie! It was a little experimental this week for sure. For some reason my gut reaction to the prompt was "what's the most inappropriate thing Midas' touch could do?" and human flesh popped into mind immediately. I think you're right on the money with Desrosiers. Strikes me as the kind of person who uses, and uses up, others. I think the curious thing is, people like him aren't always particularly secretive about what they do, and yet we still allow ourselves to be pulled along. Perhaps Jacques could have prevented all this - ...

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AnneMarie Miles
02:15 Sep 06, 2023

Hmmmm, perhaps Desrosiers deserves his own story... It certainly seems like he has many tales to tell, however sinister they may be.

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Michelle Oliver
15:03 Sep 02, 2023

Horror is not my thing, but this story was so well written I didn’t want to stop reading. I read it as a metaphor for an obsession eating you alive. His obsession with the deceased muse and the alcohol combined to spiral him into an artistic, grief inspired, madness. This madness allowed him to do what he was too hesitant to do while in a rational state of mind, that is to join his lost love in death. As always a superior tale with excellent execution.

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Michał Przywara
20:56 Sep 05, 2023

Yeah, that sounds like a great take! Things can definitely consume us, if we let them, if we listen to those who encourage them. I'm glad it was a decent story, despite the horror :) Thanks for leaving your thoughts, Michelle!

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Michelle Oliver
01:21 Sep 09, 2023

Congratulations on the shortlist. So well deserved.

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Michał Przywara
03:16 Sep 09, 2023

Thanks :)

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Kevin Logue
13:58 Sep 02, 2023

This felt very visceral, from the fantastic set setting, the depressed struggling artist, the strange benefactor, the murdered lover. For me I felt the end was a alcohol fuelled expression of his all consuming mental health issues, was somethin eating him alive? Is there a supernatural/ subconscious element were he murdered Camille through his touch because he destroys all around him. This left me thinking, and I love it when that happens. I'll be carrying this one in the back of my head for a few days, I just know it. Great story, excell...

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Michał Przywara
22:29 Sep 04, 2023

Thanks, Kevin! It means a lot to hear that. There's definitely some consumption going on here, real or metaphorical. I'm often struck by how many creative people push themselves too far, too fast, burning like a candle lit at both ends. But "the show must go on," right? For people on the outside, it's the product that matters, and rarely the person creating it. I appreciate the feedback!

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Kevin Logue
17:24 Sep 08, 2023

Congrats on the well desevred short listing! 🎉🎉

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Michał Przywara
19:23 Sep 09, 2023

Thanks :D

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Tom Skye
20:00 Aug 30, 2023

The climax to this was fantastic. Great job

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Michał Przywara
20:34 Aug 31, 2023

Thanks, Tom! Glad to hear it worked out :)

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