The following story appears in Mathew M. Bartlett’s 2017 collection The Stay-Awake Men and Other Unstable Entities, available from Dunhams Manor Press. Accompanying this story, we’re also featuring an interview with Bartlett.
— The Editors
Ketter Greyson was an illusionist by trade, schooled and experienced in all of the attendant disciplines and varieties of performance, but if there was a trick to aging elegantly, or at least gracefully, it was one he was unable to master. While the Great Spettrini, his mentor, before disappearing amidst rumors of deviltry and dark doings, had affected a patriarchal, authoritative manner and a pointed Van Dyke beard of solid white, Greyson had grown paunchy and raspy, tentative and hesitant. His hair, which at one time he could sweep up into an imposing pompadour, had grown thin and wispy. His eyebrows, once tools of suggestion and dark insinuation, had become as overgrown and unruly as black thatch on a blighted landscape.
In the waning years of his life, Greyson carried on his person at all times a 19th century Sheffield dagger eight and one half inches long encased a scabbard of red leather. The handle was said to have been made of bone, specifically from the femur of a 119-year old magician still performing nightly in Prague. On the not infrequent occasions that Greyson performed in an unfamiliar venue or a private home, before entering, it was his custom to leap to the doorjamb, thrust the dagger’s blade into it, and lurch back, his hands raised in an aspect of defense and defiance. He would deduct from his fee the cost of the repair. One may find among his papers, housed in the archives of the Leeds Public Library, a weathered but still legible carbon copy of a contract with the Leeds Academy of Music which says as much. The practice was thought by many to have been an affectation, a peccadillo, or simply a mark of the man’s eccentricity. In point of fact, the custom was more significant than that.
Greyson the Great sprawled in the hotel bed face down as if hurled there, and he dreamed. A grey fog hung in the air just above a filthy river lined with sagging trees, as though it were the river’s spirit looking down upon its dying body. Old ladies in nightgowns were being swept helplessly along by the flood-swollen waters, and their rescuers, gruff old men in sheriff’s uniforms and hats, were pulling them onto the shore by their sagging, veined arms, calling them “goddamned fools.” Greyson himself stood on the shoreline in his underwear, crying, not for the women, but from embarrassment at his exposed paleness and flab. The mud covered his feet. He freed the big toe of his right foot, then his left. They popped from the mud. Plorp. Plorp. He stirred, awakened, flipped himself onto his back with considerable and vocal effort. The hotel room was unbearably hot. He would have written it off as haunted if not for having been taught that ghosts bring cold, not heat, to their haunts. He exited the bed, feet finding his slippers, and stepped into the hall, with its faded carpet and cracked wallpaper, to catch a cross-breeze, and indeed found one, though it was anemic and smelled vaguely of mold.
Greyson had traveled a long distance to this unfamiliar village after having been hired by telephone to perform at a child’s birthday party. The voice on the other end of the line had been brisk and businesslike. The caller had inquired as to Greyson’s fee and promptly offered double. In his younger days, the offer might have set bells of alarm chiming, but gigs had of late been sparse, and he was in arrears on his rent, his housing depending largely on the nearly exhausted generosity of his landlord, who was, thankfully, very much enamored of “artistic types.” The party was not scheduled until midnight—late, especially for a child’s party, but Greyson was no parent, so what did he know? His children were cooing doves, sniffing rabbits, and young female assistants in leotards, none of whom knew from bedtime.
Driving at dusk on a long rural road that paralleled the interstate, he had first seen the town, through a break in the thick forest, as a garland of twinkling yellow lights. The tree-lined road on which he was driving was devoid of streetlights until it emerged from the woods; after that point the occasional low cottage or trailer hunkered in the vapor glow, and then, after a hairpin turn, he found himself on a silent yellow-lit main strip cramped with businesses and restaurants, all caged and shackled despite the early hour. If not for the occasional hooded figure sitting in a doorway or meandering along a sidewalk, he might have thought he’d wandered into a still picture. He saw no recognizable chain store nor familiar corporate logo, save the yellow and red Shell sign impaled on a long pole many yards above a shack of a gas station, glowing like a blood-smeared moon.
The hotel was one street over from where the man on the phone had said it would be. The three-story clapboard building leaned like a drunk against a large, gnarled oak; in fact, the ancient tree had pushed itself up through a portion of the third floor balcony and had consumed a length of the railing. The institution was presided over by a skeletal baroness behind bulletproof glass. She was festooned with dusty scarves and a haphazard constellation of costume jewelry. She looked like a diseased Christmas tree. He afforded her neither courtesy nor conversation as he perfunctorily filled in and signed with his curving, ornate G the various forms required of him. She pulled from a hook a diamond shaped bit of plastic with the number 184 scrawled on it in marker; from it depended a small copper-colored key. She pushed it over to him, and only then did she tear away her gaze from the adding machine that squatted in front of her like a flattened frog.
“I want that room exactly the way you found it when you leave,” she said, her voice tattered from years of filter-less cigarettes.
Greyson raised an eyebrow. “I assure you I have no plans other than to sleep and to leave,” he said.
“I know your kind, and you had best mind your step.” She glanced down at his attaché and his wheeled case of tricks. “I wish you’d never come,” she said, and she did not sound angry. She sounded sad.
After a period of wandering the maze of hallways, he found himself back at Room 184. The room was equipped with a small television, tethered to the wall with a metallic arm with wires for veins. He turned it on. A blandly handsome television host hopped on one foot onto a gaudy set with a cityscape backdrop. The host acknowledged the cacophonous house band, pumping his arms and using his fingers for six-shooters. The band-leader, an elderly man with cataracts, clothed in a loosely tied blue bathrobe, shot back with one finger, ducking slightly behind his synthesizer keyboard. The host strode forward until his head hit the camera, leaving a sweaty blur on the lens.
He backed up, grinning wildly. “Have you heard this,” he asked. “Have you heard this, have you seen this, have you read this in the newspaper; did someone whisper this to you from a darkened doorway, from the hair-clogged shower drain in a condemned motel, from the tiny mouth of an anthill in a parking lot? Did the sultry but affected waitress hand you this on a grease-stained note with your check, did the leering priest mutter this to an indifferent congregation of layabouts, did the wind whisper this through the trees as you drove through the burnt remains of a forest, did a radio host intone this news from an ocean of static…” and on and on in such a manner until Greyson finally switched off the set, despite having had a desire to see the first guest, a movie star who had just lost his wife and baby daughters to the new and rampant strain of influenza.
Bereft of the television, he pulled from his attaché a few of his newly received catalogs. He began to flip through the flimsy pages, considering new illusions to add to his act: the Suit of Snakes, the Crying Dwarf, the Decapitation Hat, the Cabinet of Catastrophe. But he could find no inspiration. He consulted his wristwatch for the time, only to discover that the red second hand and the black minute hand had fallen and were resting in the form of a squashed X at the base of the glass. He could tell by the position of the hour hand that it was just past eleven o’clock. He resolved to dress, get a bite, and arrive in time to set up.
A few moments later Greyson stood before the full-length bathroom mirror, resplendent in glittery blue tuxedo top, orange bow-tie, and black cummerbund topping black pinstriped trousers. His shoes were blacked and shined, his hair glued in black lines against his skull, his brows and widow’s peak subtly accented with eyebrow pencil. He warped his face into a demented grin, shot his eyebrows up quickly, one after the other, and then sank them down slowly. His dentures were blindingly white, eyes tinted a devilish red with contact lenses.
Greyson had become interested in magic not because of having seen a performance nor perused a book, but because of a poster. In a glass display adjacent to the door of the Civic Hall, dramatically lit from below, the illustration depicted a long-limbed Spettrini on a field of purple, a gothic iron fence with intertwined skulls and snakes in the foreground and tilting and split gravestones behind him. He was dressed like a vampire, in a tuxedo with a black and red cape, his fingers bent, frozen in mid-gesticulation, his nails black and long. Between his hands a bat hovered upside down in streams of psychic energy, drawn by the artist as one might sketch a range of hillocks. One thin eyebrow was arched and his hair, black as an oil slick on a moonless night, was combed back and plastered flat to his cranium. His waxed mustache stuck out from the sides of his face like pipe cleaners. The very words on the poster seized Greyson’s imagination. Enchantments. Levitation. Necromancy. Resurrection. Its purpose was to advertise Spettrini’s upcoming performance at that very hall, a spectacle which Greyson was not to attend, due to the staunch religious beliefs of his parents, Catholics both, who saw all magic as black, as either a tool of the devil or a series of acts of simple chicanery. Even had Spettrini’s show not been concerned primarily with the macabre and the outré, he was more likely to be allowed admittance to an abattoir than to a performance of legerdemain and mentalism and illusion.
They could not prevent him, however, from sending letters to the illusionist, and that he did, letters written and rewritten and fretted over as Greyson attempted to find a tone respectful, admiring, but not too fawning. It was not an easy balance to achieve. But something in the missives must have drawn the man’s attention, for he agreed to meet with Greyson, to actually depart his home in the Connecticut town of Orford Parish and travel the considerable distance to Leeds.
Spettrini arranged to meet Greyson at The Tunnel Bar, a tavern housed in what had previously been a passageway to and from a now disused train station. Greyson fretted. He would not be admitted due to his age and youthful appearance, he claimed. Spettrini advised him to clear his head of concerns. They met after school on a Thursday. Spettrini ushered the boy in as though they owned the place, they sat and ordered with no questions asked nor identification demanded, and for two hours Spettrini talked with the boy about illusion, about his career, about his philosophies and his theories. Spettrini agreed to come back one Thursday per month, and for some time he kept his word.
The bar was furnished with quartets of oversized leather chairs situated around small tables of brass and glass. The only light came from sparse track lighting along the low, curved ceiling and the votive candles on the tabletops. It was not a place for the claustrophobic. The bar carried sound in strange and unpredictable ways: one might hear a snippet of conversation from ten tables away as clearly as if it were taking place in the immediate proximity. The two would meet at the farthest table, and Spettrini would proffer old handbills, newspaper clippings, and tales of a life of hotels, raucous audiences, and dalliances with dissolute women who’d haunt the door of his dressing room like wraiths. Greyson would sit rapt, drinking expensive cocktails paid for by his mentor, and dream of such a life for himself, far from classroom desks and droning, chalk-fingered schoolteachers.
After nearly eighteen months of meeting, during which Greyson learned not only many illusions, but the histories and controversies behind them, Spettrini abruptly stopped replying to Greyson’s letters. Their last meeting had been exciting, but exceedingly unsettling. The great magician had arrived in a state of distraction, his hair uncombed, the corner of his mouth turned down as if stuck that way. His white shirt was stained brown at the collar, and patches of unshaven stubble darkened his face in no discernible pattern. He muttered, repeated himself, ordered a second drink before having started the first. His breath was mephitic, and the alcohol, consumed in heroic quantities, served only to exacerbate the foul miasma. Finally, he’d leaned forward and grabbed Greyson’s shirt collar, squeezing it into his fist. “I’ve had a breakthrough,” he said, and his eyes blazed bright and manic. “Watch.”
He leant back and his eyes rolled to the whites. His hands gripped the arms of his chair, veins standing out blue and pulsing. A sound rolled through the room, like that of a heavy glass plate spinning on a marble surface. A wine glass shattered at a table near the entrance, then another. Greyson looked about him and saw that the glass tops of the tables were spinning, faster, faster, sending the candles careening to the walls. The lights flickered and the bottles and glasses clinked faster and faster and Greyson thought for a mad second that his mentor had summoned a ghost-train that would blast through the wall and roar through the tunnel, crushing and damning to nonexistence the few souls within. In the flickering lights, Greyson had a terrible hallucination: for a moment it seemed as though Spettrini’s head was sending tendrils of flesh back to the chair. Where the tendrils hit the surface, the leather took on the magician’s pallor, splotches of flesh spreading like spilled water, and then hair, white and wild, began sprouting from the flesh of the chair. Spettrini reddened, as did the chair, then, as the spinning tables slowed and the stroboscopic effect faded, so did the hallucination.
As the shaken staff rushed about with dustpans and mops, Spettrini released Greyson from his grip, rose from his seat, spun himself into his overcoat, and fled, with Greyson trailing him. Outside a seething and cold rain was pummeling the streets. It was loud on the awning under which they stood. Spettrini said, not bothering to raise his voice over the cacophony, There is much to learn, boy. There are places other than here, and limits far beyond what anyone has even considered, nor dreamed of exploring. And then he was in his black car and gone.
After three letters went unanswered, Greyson, standing on a ledge over a pit of despondency, made the decision to get on with his life, to be resolute, to perfect his illusions, to supplant his previous lessons with the solidity and quiet peacefulness of books. He spent his days in the library, his nights peering at illustrations and reading and rereading the biographies of the greats. His first performances were on coffeehouse stages, and they were received with an indifference that bordered on hostility. He supplemented his biographies and books of tricks with several volumes on the topic of public speaking, folded that learning into his routines, and began, slowly, to perfect an act. Once he had taken the step of moving from his parents’ home, he flourished.
His first shows, inspired heavily by Spettrini and by famed illusionist Black Herman, featured jars of elixirs and smoking potions in a looming black cabinet set in a landscape of tilting headstones and folded-hand stone angels. Selected audience members would be administered one or another of the “medicines” by a lithe assistant in a black leotard, and after some vamping on Greyson’s part, would crumple to the stage as though dead. The doctor of the house, played with a dour seriousness by his older cousin Ernest, would pronounce the poor soul right there on the stage, to the horror of his family members or friends in the audience. The body would be placed into a black casket on the stage, and the audience encouraged to chant a string of nonsense words invented by Greyson as the lights dimmed and shadows flitted in the rafters. The cadaver would then float up through the lid of the coffin and hover above it, spinning slowly, ethereal and ghostlike. Greyson would clap his hands, the house lights would blaze, blinding the audience, and when they dimmed and the crowd’s sight returned and the red and blue floating orbs faded from their views, the audience member would be standing behind the coffin, dazed. Two assistants would gingerly help the man back to his seat. Word got around.
A letter arrived at the Greyson household one day several years after Ketter had left. Nicholas Greyson looked at the return address in Connecticut, scowled at the ostentatious handwriting, and tore in two the envelope and the letter within. He deposited it in the trash with the eggshells and the chicken bones and the dust and he never spoke of it to his wife nor his son.
Greyson donned his overcoat to shield the street people from his splendor. He swept up his wheeled case, extended the handle, and exited the hotel in search of sustenance. The main street, as before, was shuttered. He passed junk shops, check-cashing establishments, a Gentleman’s Club called the Gilded Cardinal. The case bounced in his wake, wheels rumbling on the sidewalks like an extravagant drum roll. He passed a restaurant with white tablecloths, elaborate frescoes depicting teeming Roman squares, chairs upended on the tables, their limbs raised in the air as though vying to answer a question posed by a hat-stand behind a marble podium. Somewhere in the distance some poor soul launched into a terrible coughing jag punctuated with howling inhalations.
Soon he was beyond the commercial section, among bungalows and one-story clapboard houses, all flickering with the bluish light of televisions, otherwise apparently unlit. Intermittent streetlights provided weak pools of sepia. The bulbs, grouped in fours, were caked in thick dust. At least one of every four had burned out. Bugs swarmed in clouds around them, and from one depended a long web, at the end of which spun a large, dead, dried spider, its legs all touching at their ends, as in a grim ballet. He passed a neglected garden, all tangled vegetation; splintered, split stakes; and sagging string. Somewhere in its dark depths something started and then fled, causing dried and dying leaves to whisper and crunch. As it passed by him, a few stakes toppled, their string pulling down wilted stalks.
Presently he saw a vapor-lit parking lot, empty of cars, forming an unnecessarily large frame around a small yellow convenience store. There was no sign to tell him the name of the store, but a blue and red OPEN sign blinked and winked in its window, illuminating outdated and faded advertisements for cigarettes. The largest depicted an impossibly angular blonde on a field of nauseous yellow, a cigarette between her fingers, shrieking, all her teeth bared. Something in her eyes that caused him tremendous unease. He rushed inside, if only to put the blonde out of his sight. The light shone blindingly bright. He angled a hand at his brow and searched the aisles. Behind the rows of chips and jerky and candy he located a bin of nearly frozen sandwiches impaled with toothpicks and smothered in an excess of cellophane. He grabbed one at random. He approached the unmanned counter.
On the television behind the counter, the grinning talk show host held out a long-fingered hand to introduce a magician. Greyson dropped his sandwich and it landed with a small mortal thud. The magician was someone he knew, Haskell, a former apprentice of his, now grown, a young man, baby fat gone. His blonde hair was rolled in a gelled wave; unthinkably, he was clad in faded dungarees and an untucked shirt. He strutted the small stage, pointing out into the unseen crowd, vamping. He exuded confidence. He cocked an eyebrow and pulled pinched fingers up to his ear, slowly extracted a long, gnarled carrot, wincing as it emerged.
Haskell placed the carrot on a telephone table, repeated the trick with his other ear. Then he paused. His eyes bugged out and his hand went to his throat, shielding his twitching Adam’s-apple. His cheeks puffed out froglike and he affected nausea, dizziness. He staggered, and Greyson found himself staggering a few steps as well, leaning on a display, gaze affixed to the screen. Haskell’s stomach contracted, expanded. Then something appeared at his thin, pursed lips. He reached up a tentative hand and pulled. Rabbit ears. He hacked, gagged, stumbled forward. With a retch, he extracted a small rabbit into his cupped hands.
The rabbit was festooned with strings of saliva; a long line of drool, tinged with bright red blood, wavering slightly in the air, ran from the man’s bottom lip to the rabbit’s puffed tail. With a sweep of his arm he wiped the saliva away. With his other hand he held the rabbit aloft by the scruff of its neck. The animal looked frightened. The boy placed the rabbit on the table between the two carrots. He raised his arm and turned away from the camera. Tucked into the back of his dungarees was a shining cleaver. He turned back, his face impassive, raised the cleaver in the air.
“All set?” A clerk, thin, a wisp of a mustache, had appeared as though from a trapdoor.
“If by that vague phrase you mean have I been helped, I most certainly have not. If you mean am I ready to transact business, I am… and have been.” The clerk sniffed and the two wordlessly, with mutual contempt, exchanged currency for comestibles. Greyson looked back at the television. The blood-spattered talk show set was now teeming with sodden rabbits, tethered together by an expansive shivering and glistening web of spittle. The boy magician was fully bent in the center of the set, soaking in the shocked applause. The camera swung over to the host, who was clapping his hands together madly, then to the band leader, who pumped a yellow fist, howling. Horribly, the band leader’s bathrobe had fallen open. The clerk, now turned away from Greyson, gaped at the television. He began to applaud, and then to cough, hacking and gasping and clapping his hands. Greyson fled, his right hand fastened over his mouth and nose to prevent the transmission of germs.
He lugged his case to the curb and sat under a streetlight. The wrapping on the sandwich was voluminous and apparently without beginning or end. After considerable effort he was finally able to free the sandwich. It seemed to consist of cold cuts pink and grey between two greenish layers of mayonnaise in which was suspended shreds of lettuce browned at the edges. All of it—bread, meat, and condiments—tasted of old bologna. Greyson stood and tossed the thing into a trash can. He would attempt, perhaps, to sneak an hors d’oeuvre at the venue.
So, his stomach issuing bubbly complaints, he turned from the main thoroughfare and wended his way down narrow avenues with close-together houses, all dark and silent, watched over by crouching cars. He turned onto Tiffany Terrace. At its terminus stood the venue, a tall and profusely turreted mansion that rose high into the starry sky. It was as though the street were nothing more than a long driveway, the other houses mere guard shacks and dormitories for the service staff necessary to maintain a house of that size. The front was lit by spotlights, all the windows ablaze. On a current of air there wafted faint music, a jaunty steam calliope, hissing cymbals, a tuba stalking a muffled trumpet. There were shrieks and laughter and ragged coughing. It sounded like a carnival.
As he lugged his case along, he saw that the other houses on the street appeared to have been abandoned midway through their construction. Their frames leaned right and left; some were partially collapsed onto cross-hatches of warped plywood. Tattered tarpaulins lay strewn over piles of bricks and concrete blocks. Further along, there were only foundations, then giant geometric holes in the ground. He fancied he could sense things lurking in those would-be basements, splashing around in rainwater and muck, and he hastened his steps.
He attained the expansive porch, bouncing his case alongside him as he ascended the stone steps. The door sat open and he walked into the pink-tiled foyer and looked down both side halls and then into the balcony-lined room ahead. No! It cannot be! Among the guests, mingling, laughing, holding aloft a glass of white wine as he made his way through the crowd—Spettrini! The man was elderly, bent, but he moved like a boy, quick and alive. Greyson had heard he’d drowned, or been torn apart by a bear… but there he was… or… wait. Was it him? Greyson practically sprinted into the room, his case bouncing behind him, only to be accosted by a large man in a powder-blue caftan who slid from a side hallway and blocked Greyson’s view. The man’s brows and fat mustache were bright white. “This way,” he said. “You’re late, you’re late.”
He put his hand on Greyson’s shoulder, grabbed the case with his other hand, and they trotted down a short hall and into a couch-lined side room that ran the length of the house. From the ceiling hung a strange, bulbous chandelier, moist and glowing with reflected light. All about Greyson was a gurgling, rushing sound, as of strong currents of flowing water. As he was hastened along, in an adjacent room he spied Haskell, his former apprentice, apparently fresh from his television appearance. He was seated in an overstuffed easy chair, surrounded by revelers, cradling in his arms a small rabbit whose head lolled loosely—its neck had been broken. Haskell was disconsolate, his mouth slack and his tear-streaked face a shade of red one associates with profound sun-burns. In the next room stood the television host, laughing, all gums and teeth, each arm around the waist of a skeletal brunette whose spine jutted from her back like the teeth of serrated knives. Also in that room sat three shivering, wet old women wound tightly in towels, being tended to by paternal, mustachioed sheriffs whose bulging stomachs tested the integrity of their uniforms. And the convenience store kid chatting up a portly blonde in a garish pink pantsuit. And the actor he’d missed on the talk show, waiting for the bathroom, one hand gripping a white handkerchief into which he was gagging loudly, the other grabbing desperately at his crotch in a manner befitting a child.
Finally, Greyson was brought into what he took to be the great room. At its easternmost edge was a vast stage, ringed with chaise lounges, ancient chairs, thrones, couches. From the center of the ovoid chamber, a stone column, thicker than four stout men, rose ceilingward; from it curved great balconies of white marble. Monstrous red curtains obscured the windows; the ceiling was high and far away, a pink and blue blur. But the room was empty of people.
A voice spoke, echoing around the room. Come back to me, it said. I have so much to teach. There are passageways to be conjured, paths to be struck through the walls that confine us to this world. Into the room through an archway, side-by-side, strode the television host, Haskell, the convenience store clerk, an old woman in a soaked nightgown, and a sheriff. Their clothes melted away as though consumed by invisible fire, and they squeezed together shoulder to shoulder and elongated, horizontal creases forming across their bodies as they became fingers that reached out for Greyson as a section of the column split off and bent to form a great arm with blue veins surfacing and pulsing at the narrowing wrist. The arm attached to the fingers, the front-most section flattening into a palm.
As Greyson fled, the walls and ceiling began to vibrate, fluttering like sheets. A terrible shriek tore through the chamber and a figure appeared at the entrance toward which he was heading. It was the woman from the hotel. Freed from her yellow-windowed booth, she was flush with color: rouged cheeks, scarves of brilliant yellow, shining purple, leaf-green. Her scarves rippled as though in a stiff wind. She was ragged, aged, buffeted by time, and absolutely beautiful. “Run,” she said. “Get out of this house as fast as your feet can take you.” The walls shook and a terrible roar cycled throughout the house like a demon train on an intricate track. A set of white spikes rose from the floor and another sank through the ceiling. They dug into the woman at her neck and up through her left leg. A glut of blood bubbled at her mouth.
Greyson ran. He reached out his hand to touch hers as he passed her. Her skin was warm. There was a jolt, as of static electricity, and as Greyson exited, the chamber began to contract around him. He bounded down the red hall (which was now damp and tinged with purple), reached the porch, bounded to the walk, and ran down the center of the street. The roar was deafening now, the street lit nearly as bright as daylight from behind him. He turned.
The roof of the house was sprouting white and black hairs that crawled up like a profusion of snakes. The dormer windows went white, and eyeballs, blue and blazing, rolled down into view like window shades. The front door widened, moldings splintering and falling to the ground. It bent into a grin as on either side of him the half built-houses began to rise like jagged arms, sending clouds of dirt into the air. The road began to split and crumble. Greyson turned again and ran as Spettrini pushed himself out of the ground and the house that was his head ascended into the night sky.