About the story:
Last year Mike's story 'Parlour Games' was published in the now out-of-print anthology Tales from the Smoking Room - edited by Benedict J Jones and VC Jones and published by Hand of Danjou Press.
In Parlour Games, we get the the return of Mike's popular character, Damian Paladin - Mike says:
'It wasn’t intended to be a Damian Paladin story as such – but Paladin’s been around in one guise or another for quite some time, and I’ve always had a small, thinly-disguised repertory company of characters popping up in my fiction (something I picked up from Michael Moorcock). It felt like the thing to do: why invent another expert on the occult and weird when you already have one to hand.
'I had no particular author or influence in mind – although I suspect Arthur Conan Doyle and MR James weren’t buried too deeply in my subconscious (James especially – since his ghostly tales were originally told from the brandy-warmed glow of a cosy, English university don’s study). Plus I’ve always enjoyed that typical late nineteenth century style of fiction – with its use of language and broad vocabulary.'
And so, for your reading pleasure, here it is!
I slip my watch from its pocket and compare it to the smoking room’s mantle clock. Both agree that midnight is still several minutes away. Putting the watch back I catch Burgess’s eye: it appears that he too has been watching the time. Burgess shrugs his massive white eyebrows quite expressively, and draws on his cigar. We are both thinking the same, I imagine.
Almost midnight – and still no hint of whatever entertainment Rees-Franklin has planned for us. Every month the Rees-Franklins host a select dinner – just Burgess, Wyatt and I. All excellent evenings, to be sure. Mrs Rees-Franklin is an excellent hostess, her fine features still exhibiting much of the beauty for which she was so renowned in her youth; but to be frank, her husband is a little dull: his opinions and politics safe and conservative. The man never had, in my esteem, an original thought in his life.
However, two months ago they introduced some truly remarkable after-dinner amusements. I cannot conceive the idea was his – far too singular. Mrs Rees-Franklin, perhaps, although I think I detect the mischievous hand of their delightful daughter, Trudy. Word has already spread throughout local society; the Rees-Franklins are suddenly the talk of the county.
Last month they hired an excellent illusionist who astounded us with sleight of hand, a baffling mind reading trick, and a startling finale involving a clockwork mannequin and a quite gruesome vanishing trick – very much in the new Grand-Guinol style – for which Trudy volunteered. I confess that I was more than a little relieved when she stepped forth at the end – none the worse – over the dismembered mannequin. I believe I applauded the loudest of all. And the month before it had been a genuine medium – or so they insisted – and we spent a jolly evening among knocking tables, spirit guides, and trying to guess exactly who was rattling the ghostly tambourine. Even the ladies joined in.
But it is looking increasingly unlikely they will be rejoining us this evening. It is almost certain Mrs Rees-Franklin – along with Trudy – will have retired for the night. We men have been abandoned to our cigars and brandy.
I glance at the clock again: bare seconds have passed since last I checked; midnight is as far away as ever. The evening is becoming interminable.
I stand, making my way to the brandy decanter and pouring a generous splash into my snifter. As I do so, it occurs to me that we are one short. Rees-Franklin has an extra guest tonight – the natural curse of sudden popularity, perhaps – a gentleman he introduces as one Demyan Andreivich Pravdinski. Despite his Russian name, his features more resemble that of the Mediterranean breed. His dress and manners, however, are impeccable, and his knowledge of the world quite remarkable.
“I say – what happened to that Russian fellow?” I ask the room in general.
Everyone glances at his neighbour, drink and cigars lowered.
“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” Wyatt mutters. He smoothes his magnificent side whiskers.
“He slipped out just after the ladies were excused,” Burgess says. He’s an astute chap, Burgess; little gets past him. “Quiet as you like.”
“Well now,” I ask our host. “Has our mysterious guest fled?”
Rees-Franklin smiles; it stretches his round, shiny face to the point of bursting. “Mr Pravdinski is still in the house, gentlemen. I understand he had some matters to attend to.”
“Damned irregular,” Wyatt complains. He heaves himself to his feet and helps himself to more brandy and a second cigar – though his complexion is already quite ruddy. “Slipping away like some Hottentot…”
“Indeed.” Burgess puffs on his own cigar. He resembles a powerful locomotive cresting a hill after an arduous climb. “Like a thief in the night, what…?” He glances towards me – in acknowledgement of my perspicacity, I hope.
I find myself laughing with no little sense of delight. “Is he this evening’s amusement?” I ask Rees-Franklin. The man just smiles back: maddeningly so.
“What?” Burgess joins in the merriment. “Just what can we expect, R-F? Something so risqué we have to wait for the ladies to be sound asleep?”
“I knew it!” huffs Wyatt. “Knew the fellow was some form of blackguard!” Over dinner, talk had naturally turned to the Second Boer War – a subject about which this Pravdinski had proven to be surprisingly knowledgeable. It quickly became obvious that he was no admirer of either Mr Rhodes or the British South Africa Company; Wyatt was predictably outraged.
“I can assure you Pravdinski is neither blackguard nor some kind of degenerate,” Rees-Franklin says in his level way. “He is possessed, however, of the most remarkable talents.”
“Another illusionist,” Burgess smiles. “I hope he’s not as gruesome as the last fellow –quite turned me stomach…” His grin and twinkling eyes belie his words.
Rees-Franklin crushes his cigar and looks thoughtful. “Pravdinski is no stage magician, I believe. His recommendation comes from the highest level. If I revealed just how high—.” His glance flickers to the door which is swinging open. “And here is the man, if I’m not very much mistaken.”
“Speak of the devil…,” Wyatt mutters.
Pravdinski steps into the smoking room, carrying a worn carpet bag. He smiles at us in turn, nodding a brief bow to each. At dinner, I saw that Trudy was quite smitten by his swarthy looks. I feel myself bristling.
“Are your preparations complete?” Rees-Franklin enquires.
“Thank you, yes.” Pravdinski’s voice is well-modulated and strangely accentless. In society, he could easily pass for the very best sort of Englishman.
He places his threadbare bag on the polished floor and opens it. I expect him to produce – with a vulgar flourish – some kind of outlandish apparatus. Instead, he removes a few lengths of cord, a bowl, fresh candles, and a small black jar that is covered in gold symbols. I’m reminded of Chinese and Japanese pottery, which it closely resembles.
Pravdinski places his odd collection on a small table and arranges it carefully: the candles forming a square with the bowl and jar at its centre. The cords he drops carelessly on the table top.
“Do you have a match?” he asks. Burgess leaves his armchair, offering the man his box of lucifers. Pravdinski lights the candles, handing Burgess the matches back as he extinguishes the used one. Then he takes another item from his bag: a clear bottle – rather like a medicine flat – almost filled with an opalescent liquid. Uncorking the bottle, he pours its contents into the bowl. The room is filled with a pungent smell – not unlike carbolic, but underlined with a faint, putrid tang.
“What’s this?” says Burgess, returning to his chair. “Black magic?”
“What?” Wyatt twitches in his chair, like a man awakening from a momentary nap. “Magic you say? Surely not again! Your humour grows too pawky, old man.”
Pravdinski smiles at them both. “Humour me, gentlemen. Let us call it … a calming ritual, if you like. No more the purview of magic than, let us say, an Anglican Mass.”
Wyatt harrumphs loudly but says nothing.
The Russian steps back from his make-shift altar, smoothing his coat lapels. He is silent for a moment.
“Mr Rees-Franklin invited me here after becoming aware of my reputation,” he says eventually.
“Damn me,” chuckles Burgess. “He’s some kind of after-dinner speaker…!”
Rees-Franklin holds up a hand for silence, and Burgess subsides.
Pravdinski bows and continues. “I am aware of his monthly entertainments, and their nature. He believed – as did you all, I am certain – that such things are quite harmless.”
I feel obliged to object. “What? Simple table-rapping and overly-theatrical tricks? Where is the harm?”
Pravdinski stares at me. His gaze is cold and measuring; I feel sure Trudy would not like him so much now. “In themselves, none. Most séances – such as yours – are quite fake; Grand-Guinol theatricality an exercise in quick and cheap scares. It is when such performances are combined with what went before.” He steps closer to the table; his eyes have not left me. “I note you failed to mention what happened three months ago.”
I laugh again. “Three months ago? There was nothing three months ago.” I turn to look at Wyatt, Burgess and Rees-Franklin. All are looking at me coolly.
“You remember, old man,” says Burgess. His huge eyebrows droop over his eyes, masking them. “R-F hired that Hindu chap to perform some kind of exorcism…”
“Damned nonsense,” Wyatt huffs. “Thought you needed a ghost first.”
“You were told it would be the Kathmarti Ritual, I believe?” Pravdinski asks.
Rees-Franklin nods heavily.
“A cleansing ritual rather than an exorcism,” continues the Russian. “In skilled hands a worthy practise, leaving house and inhabitants spiritually purged. But the man you employed was as much a charlatan as the medium who would amuse you all the next month. Rather than banishing any and all evil presences – he invited one in.”
Wyatt barks a derisory laugh. I join in. Oddly, Burgess and Rees-Franklin remain soberly quiet.
“I think I should recall such a spectacle,” I say. I wonder if I missed one of the dinners. It’s inconceivable that Rees-Franklin would fail to invite me; I’ve certainly never turned one down. “Come now,” I add, as cheerfully as possible, “confess to the joke…”
“No joke, my dear chap,” says Rees-Franklin carefully. “At least—.” He pauses, seeming unable to continue.
Wyatt clears his throat and takes a great interest in his brandy glass.
“What R-F is trying to say,” Burgess interjects, his veiled eyes reflecting fire from his cigar, “is that whatever humour there may be in the situation is certainly not of our creation.”
“You went over the entire house?” Rees-Franklin asks Pravdinski.
The Russian nods. “Thoroughly. There are traces to be found everywhere, of course. Little more than hints for the most part.”
“For the most part?” Rees-Franklin repeats. I have indulged too well in the brandy, and his pedantry makes me irritable. I begin to feel as flushed as Wyatt’s face, and loosen my collar.
“The greatest concentration is – as I feared – in your daughter’s room” Pravdinski is saying.
I start at the Russian’s words. He has been prying in Trudy’s room?
“Is this appropriate behaviour?” I exclaim. “Allowing a stranger access to Trudy’s bedroom?”
“Pravdinski has been nowhere except at my express wishes,” Rees-Franklin says. “It is not his behaviour we find questionable.”
“Then whose?” I unknot my tie. The room has grown too oppressive; the fumes from the Russian’s damnable concoction are thick and cloying. I can scarcely breathe.
“My daughter worshipped you,” Rees-Franklin murmurs. His voice is calm and measured; the sudden emotion in his eyes is not. “Damn it all – she still does! Once I would have been delighted to accept you as a son-in-law. But now—!”
“Now?” I can scarcely believe what I am hearing. Is the man drunk? I grip the arms of my chair, willing my breathing to settle; praying my racing heart will calm. “What have I done? I have always behaved impeccably towards your daughter!”
“That is why I find this so difficult.” He will not meet my eyes.
“Steady, R-F,” Burgess mutters.
Wyatt looks as uncomfortable as I feel. “What is all this?” he demands.
Pravdinski is pressing on with his point as though no of us has spoken. I find it hard to catch his words – there is a painful thrumming in my ears. “The failed Kathmarti Ritual brought something into the house. It could not survive as an uncorporeal force. It needed a host; we know it found one.”
I glance in Wyatt’s direction. His whiskers are pale against his crimson features. “It cannot be!” I say.
“Of course not!” The Russian is scathing. “Who in this room cannot remember more than two months back – the time when I believe the summoned thing fully awakened? Who in this room nurtures an unrequited lust for Trudy Rees-Franklin – a desire the creature delights in satisfying…”
“No!” I find the strength to stand, pushing against my chair with quivering arms.
“What utter filth! What rot! That is simply not true!”
“What is true is that during daylight hours, Miss Rees-Franklin cannot remember the terrors of the night—.”
“Thank the Lord,” sobs Rees-Franklin. Burgess pats his shoulder.
“This is madness!” I cry. I try to roar my outrage – but I am too weak. There is no air, yet I am burning up.
“Her ordeal remains only as a vague, formless horror,” the Russian presses on, merciless. “And even that is no match against the love she holds for you: her disbelief buries the unspeakable thoughts deeper still. She denies them. The creature chose its host well.”
I collapse back into my chair. I am hallucinating – for I see a lurid mist begin to boil from the Russian’s bowl of liquid. Within that mist I see a face: my face. It is a gaunt mask, contorted with rage.
I scream – but it is not my voice. That sound could never be my voice!
Pravdinski and Burgess are either side of me. I never see them move. The Russian’s cords are lashed around my wrists and ankles. I am bound to the chair. I writhe uselessly, and another roar of fury escapes my lips.
“Steady, old man,” I hear Burgess say. “It’s for your own good.”
Pravdinski is holding the bowl – bringing it closer. The raging face howls mutely in the vapours. I feel its terrible anger bellow from my throat in perfect synchrony with its lips.
“Hold him!” the Russian commands. Burgess tightens his grip. He is joined by Rees-Franklin and a bemused Wyatt. All three bear down on me.
Pravdinski places the bowl at my feet. I want to kick it over – send its noxious contents across the floor – but I am bound too securely. As the Russian comes to his feet, he removes something from within his coat; it glimmers in the candlelight.
The mantle-clock begins to chime midnight. The evening’s entertainment finally begins.