A Preface, with Story Excerpt Following.
Within this new issue of Hoade’s Penny Dreadfuls, the adventurous reader shall find two stories advertised as “Absinthe in Arkham Tales.” This subtitle aims to prepare the reader for several unsettling elements of what is to come should he or she continue with reading these selections.
First, regarding absinthe: It was during the Penny Dreadful era (La Belle Époque, the fin de siècle, and the time of the Decadence) that “the Green Fairy” (la feé verte ) of absinthe captured the palates, minds, and lives of poets, artists, and neuraesthetes everywhere. Only the first story in this publication makes direct use of the Green Fairy, but both are Decadent and absinthe-soaked as hell.
Second, one may ask What is “Arkham”? It is a town, created by Weird writer H.P. Lovecraft, a dark, haunted place, rooted in the time-worn towns and cities of New England where ancient evils lie in wait and existential dread rules the day. Calling these “Absinthe in Arkham Tales” despite the fact that neither is set in the town of Arkham, Mass., should prepare the reader for the hallucinogenic copper salts added to these readings, for they are Decadent stories with touches of Lovecraftian dark insanity.
Finally, regarding the second story, “Only Pain Is Real,” three important bits of information:
One, the Decadents upheld an aesthetic that praised artificiality over nature. Since nature included sickness, death, and pain, the artificial was considered a priori preferable. However, anything that looked artificial but was in fact natural or real constituted the highest artistic and lifestyle achievement possible.
Two, a “Shoggoth” is a Lovecraft-created monster, horrifying in its gelatinous shape-shifting while it consumes other beings. It is always depicted with a shifting riot of eyeballs on its translucent “skin.”
Third, this latter tale, “Only Pain is Real,” is NOT for children or for anyone who takes offense easily at sexual or other moral depravity. It is Decadent, dark, even sick. This is no exaggeration. It shall challenge your ideas of existential horror with TRUE decadence being portrayed. The author hopes the brave and ready, even the depraved, reader will enjoy it.
Only Pain Is Real
An Absinthe in Arkham Tale.
“A cigarette holder and a Martini do not make the neurasthenic man,” Les Esseintes was saying, flicking an ash and taking a sip. “Nor do the tuxedo or the moustache.”
“No, the true decadent is on the inside,” Miss Satin added with a smirk. Then she sipped her own Martini to punctuate her sentence. “Of course, it’s easier for a billionaire to get away with having both.”
Esseintes gave her an expression like curdled milk, then allowed his waxed moustache to regain its insouciant curl and continued pontificating to the coterie assembled in his drawing room. “Despite Satin’s adorable hypocrisy, my friends, we can all agree that a green carnation, never seen in nature but always seen on our lapels, is very fine, as are Piper’s waxen ears.”
Piper Cera instinctively put a hand to her ears and said, “They are not waxen, Les. I simply oil them to a shine. Does everyone not know that?”
“Indeed we do,” Bertram Beresford rumbled with a baritone at odds with his approving smile, “and bravo, I say. Rarely have I seen anything real on a young woman that looked so wonderfully … artificial.”
Piper beamed and tipped a wink at the Count.
“Nature is natural, by definition,” Esseintes said, drawing his compatriots close to him as he approached the elegant wall of bookcases. “And nature provides us with what? Disease, unhappiness, disappointment, death. We must, at all costs, resist and defeat the tyranny of the natural!”
Miss Satin hid a slight smile at her host’s words. They all knew his beloved divide between real and artificial and had heard him make this little tirade … well, every time they gathered, she came to think. It was something expected now, something to get their party started of complaints about boredom with it all, sharing their latest neurasthenic symptoms, and then having a grand time of falling into a drunken pile of naked bodies, no holes barred for anyone.
Esseintes usually had something amusing to show them when he invited them over; grown some hothouse flower that looked like the cheapest plastic orchid but was in fact a real and living plant. Artifice over nature, but the greatest triumphs were those that made nature into artifice. It had been the decadents’ code back in the 1890s, but one which their group had taken up again in the 21st century with its “virtual reality” and its Internet approximations of every experience from performing music to painting to listening to music or touring the Louvre.
Les Esseintes had brought it back with his Lovers Of Wilde club, where they drank absinthe dyed a deeper green than thujone and botanicals could ever make it and sought out strange and perverse pleasures at the crossroads of real and fake. Decadence was alive again in the terminally bored and dead hearts of the four aficionados.
“It is only the artificial, the fake, the faux, that brings happiness and meaning. Art, music, unusual sex—hell, heating and air conditioning—all of these make life happy, joyful, even bearable. So we must take the real and make it fake if it is to have any aesthetic value to our lives at all.” He looked each of his guests in the eyes. “I have something new, entirely new, and artificial to show you. But of course, it is quite real.”
Esseintes reached behind the left side of the enormous bookcase. A latch loudly gave way, and the shelves swung a foot or two into the room, opening a space large enough for a man to squeeze through.
“It’s like in a Hammer picture from the Fifties!” Count Beresford said with glee. “Hidden passageways and all that!”
“Exactly. But of course, the hidden hallways in those gothic melodramas actually existed only on soundstages,” Esseintes said. “These I had constructed at considerable expense to look just like those cardboard dungeons.”
He lighted tall tapers in metal holders and handed them to each guest as each followed him behind the bookcase and into the gloomy hallway only partially lit by torches bracketed onto the walls. The Count and the two women grinned in spite of the horror-movie atmosphere, or perhaps because of it.
But Esseintes’ smile was the biggest.
“How long has this been here, Les?” Beresford asked, thoroughly enjoying the surreal surroundings. “Why have you never taken us down here? This is marvelous!”
Their host pulled the bookshelves back flush with the wall, sealing off the entrance. “It’s only now been completed, Bertram. Part of that considerable expense I mentioned was used to keep the workers quiet about what they were building here. That said, of course all of the necessary permits were acquired and the building inspector gave it his approval before anyone, even I, stepped into it.”
“Well, it’s genius,” the shiny-eared Piper blurted. “I would think I was in a monster movie—The Mummy, perhaps—or an Indiana Jones adventure!”
“It does look quite fake indeed, does it not?” Esseintes said, sharing Piper’s wonder at his own creation. “But every bit of it is as authentically constructed as, say, a Transylvanian castle of Bram Stoker’s time would have been built. If they had really existed as portrayed in the movies.”
Miss Satin said, “I thought the cocks of the exotic dancers you delighted us with last time took the cake for the ultimate decadent experience—”
“—injected with collagen to smooth out any particulars of each man’s phallus,” Piper continued, “and cooled before those gorgeous men entered us—”
“—making it feel like we were getting fucked with dildoes, when in fact they were actual cocks!” Beresford finished (and yes, he had partaken like a satyr in heat) with a glow on his face. “Truly, I thought that was the pinnacle of the natural/artificial paradox … until this.”
Esseintes only smiled. From the very beginning the passage had been angling down, and it grew cooler the deeper they went. Real cobwebs and real spiders put in appearances here and there. They looked like candy floss and rubber bugs, but that only assured the guests that they were the genuine articles.
“Where are we headed?” Miss Satin asked casually. “Will we just turn ’round when we get to the bottom, or is there a dungeon where we shall be flogged with real leather whips that looks like cheap rubber?”
The group laughed, but not as heartily as it might have, considering the obvious months of labor it must have taken to create this movie-set-for-real beneath Esseinte’s manor and grounds. They each wished they had the resources to fund such a wonderfully useless folly, but none knew if he or she would actually devote the time and energy to something like this even if they did.
“No, no, nothing of the sort,” their host said as they came to an iron gate sunk into the floor from the ceiling that looked much too (movie) medieval to lead anywhere but a torture dungeon. “But it is here that I must stop and ask you how decadent you really think you are.”
Piper let out a laugh, which she stifled when she saw the seriousness with which Esseintes was regarding them. His unflappably gay demeanor had, for the first time the former actress could remember, turned to stone as he looked at the three other members of their little party.
Count Beresford spoke first, puffing up a bit. “My title is real, but the land is gone, the money is gone, and my family is all dead. I am officially the lord of an imaginary realm.
“That said, I have used my title to bring a succession of twenty-something virgins into my bed, taking from them the one thing that they had held onto to give to the one who loved them and who would take them away from their impoverished lives. I rolled my face in the blood stain on my sheets after every gullible conquest. Life is good for nobility, even now.”
Esseintes nodded and shifted his gaze to Piper Cera, who shivered a bit in her expensive little black dress of satin treated to look like the polyester you’d find on a casino cocktail waitress. “Piper, my dear, in truth, how decadent are you?”
The shiny-eared dishwater blonde kept her eyes locked on her host’s as she formulated her answer. Finally, she said in an even tone that brooked no doubt, “I was pregnant once.”
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