(dedicated to Thomas Ligotti)
There is no escape from a mind that can slice deep inside your own. From the time that I was a young child I have been cursed by such a mind; it is an eternal curse which I very quickly realised would continue to plague my soul when this pathetic body of mine eventually fell cold. For always will I hear the swish of that cruel blade slicing through the air . . . Mrs. Widderson was the kind of woman that thrived on the nightmares of children. Yet also her malign influence had spread to the minds of
adults via the invisible web of corruption she spread each night. There was never any explanation why a child should be taken to her house; never any reason why the mother of the child should leave them in her company for precisely one hour at a time. Perhaps a black miasma spread outwards from her own sleeping mind, tainting the dreams of mothers with a quality of rose-scented nightmare to allow black to be viewed as white. Or are
these thoughts, once more, just the product of my own abnormal mind? I had no idea where my mother was taking me on that overcast day, only that we were now nearing the notorious south-side of town. Fear gripped me
as we left civilisation behind and plunged into this area I had only ever visited in my most unfortunate of nightmares. The very structure of every building I looked upon appeared sinister in this ill-reputed place; but
now my far-off memory of its houses with hood-like eaves and miniature spires, evoke only the most startling comparisons to those darkest creations of Lovecraft and Ligotti. My mother smiled as she held my hand so tightly;
she smiled as though walking in a trance of supreme pleasure. Perhaps she walked through the sunshine of a most pleasant summer's day, with the only sounds being those of birdsong and delightfully gurgling brooks
of fresh water? Whatever sound did fill her dainty ears, it was surely never once my terrified screams of protestation. The black miasma had pervaded her brain.
My mother's trance had now steered us to a shuttered house, which in some peculiar way resembled a church. In my seven-year-old's mind I immediately named
it the Black House, for this corresponded not only with the colour of its crumbling stonework, but also the general feeling of foreboding it radiated into my receptive mind. I looked upwards for a few seconds, making
a quick study of its demonic spire which, as though in mockery of the other houses miniature spires, stretched right up to pierce the grey of the skies above. When I lowered my eyes again, I saw the cold figure of
Mrs. Widderson stood awaiting us before the coffin-shaped outer door. My mother led me along the garden path towards her, then spoke with words of utter automation:
"I have brought Johnnie to play for you." Very quickly the cold hand of Mrs. Widderson snatched hold of my wrist, taking me within the gloomy house without one word of greeting to either one of us. Just before the oblong door was closed again, I was able to glance outside at mother. She was already walking back down the garden path, and probably most pleased with herself. Mrs. Widderson took me down a narrow corridor, lit only by the wan glow of occasional wall-lanterns. At times my head filled with
evil, old voices, each one speaking simultaneously, the same words in the very same tone.
"See how we exhale the mist for all those sleeping people, my dear?"
My reply was spoken silently in my mind. "I don't want to see, Mrs. Widderson -- please let your twin sisters die."
The room we entered was circular but quite small. Around its entire circumference stood a formation of childlike mannikins, each one holding hands as though currently involved in some juvenile game. The head of each mannikin was entirely crystalline and lit inside by a solitary black candle, plumes of smoke rising upwards and into the room via a coffin-shaped opening in the top of each fragile skull. My eyes fixed on a variety of toys which were scattered about the floor in the centre of the room, and in this place Mrs. Widderson deposited me, afterwards making her way over to a wooden rocking-chair which faced towards the toys. I now summoned enough courage to study her properly for the first time, and was immediately puzzled by the look of her white frock with bright red roses upon it, for it seemed to be entirely at odds with her most cruel character. With her dark eyes, Mrs. Widderson seemed to peer deep inside my very soul,
then in her high-pitched but very authoritative voice she suddenly said to me, "I will watch you play!"
As though my hands held their very own interior form of intelligence, they began to play with dolls, model cars, wind-up trains, liquid paints, and colouring crayons. Time became a blare of endless pleasure for me; I began to feel that I acted out a million different scenes derived of lives that were less than one quarter lived -- as though selected lifetimes filtered away via the actions of my own juvenile hands. Yet during this period of time, I was also most aware that Mrs. Widderson was observing every tiny detail of my play. She gloated silently, and the rocking of her chair appeared to be like a continual motion of approval and encouragement.
"You are doing well, my dear!" said those evil, old voices in my head.
The rocking motion of the chair began to slow, and soon Mrs. Widderson rose up from it and walked to a small area of floor, obscured by darkness. She bent over, picked up some unseen object, then walked over to me and placed it on the floor. My eyes now focused on a very skilfully constructed model of a guillotine, complete with dangerously sharp blade. Mrs. Widderson then gathered up those toy dolls I had previously been playing with, standing them upright in a small circle before me.
"Now chop off their heads!" she said in that same high-pitched but authoritative voice. Instantly the innocence of my childish years departed and I seized the doll nearest me, locking its head securely within the red-stained holding-ring of the guillotine. I then began to wind a miniature wooden handle with my right hand, growing very fascinated and excited to see the blade begin to rise upwards. As I continued to wind this handle, I
saw that the blade passed up through a gap in the top of the wooden framework, until almost its full length protruded. I then noticed that its top was bevelled in such a manner that one may safely place the palm of their
hand upon it, and thus apply all the pressure needed to bring about a most dramatic execution. My head suddenly filled with cruelty and darkness, and with my right hand I pressed down on the blade in savage fashion.
A satisfying thud of sound came as the wooden neck of the doll was sliced right through, but in that same second of time came a shrill scream to my ears, this followed instantly by the sound of breaking glass, and to
my eyes a slight dimming of light. When I looked at the mannikins stood around the circumference of the room, I saw the crystalline head of one had fallen to the floor and smashed. The black candle previously within
it had now extinguished. At first I found this secondary decapitation a very shocking thing to have occurred, but then my anxiety dissipated all at once -- for it was only a game. "You are doing well, my dear!" said those evil, old voices in my head. Soon I selected a second doll for my fascinating decapitation party, once more securing its head within the guillotine's red-stained holding-ring, then going through the supreme excitement of winding up the blade into its lethal position. Again I pressed down on the blade with cruel delight, and this time the final thud combining with the awful scream and sound of shattering glass. . . it was the sweetest music to my ears.
Yet with every decapitation came a greater darkening of the room, so that very soon only one mannikin remained with crystalline head and black candle intact. I could now barely see the guillotine, but still the white face of Mrs. Widderson peered sinisterly at me from the dimness. I hesitated for a moment, dreading the total darkness which I knew would close about me with the final decapitation. Yet a malign infection had somehow been instilled within my mind, so that I came to crave the scream of the final mannikin and the sound of shattering glass. But when the final decapitation eventually did take place, and the sound of that awful scream had died in my ears, the total darkness all about me became instantly filled with deceit and unseen threat. Soon I heard the sound of Mrs. Widderson moving about. It struck me that she remained totally unaffected by the lack of
light, and had now engaged in some sort of sinister activity. In the following seconds I became aware that she had silently approached me and that she now stood very near, for there reigned over my entire body a terrible
coldness. Suddenly she snatched hold of one of my hands, forcibly holding it open while quickly smearing some unseen substance upon the palm and fingers. When this was completed, she immediately began the same procedure
with my other hand. I remained with both my hands held outwards when she had finished this; but I now felt shocked and guilty, as though I had become her accomplice in some sickening crime. From the perimeter of the
room I heard the door creak open, and so was able to see the feeble light of the wall-lanterns. This opportunity of escape was enough to release me from my frozen stance. I walked quickly down the dim-lit corridor,
all the time gripped by the fear that Mrs. Widderson may be stood concealed in the darkness of a shadow. But at last I walked free from the evil of the Black House, passing through the coffin-shaped door and into the arms
of my mother.
"I hope you've been a good boy for Mrs. Widderson, Johnnie? I can tell by the state of your hands that you've been busy painting -- and it's very obvious that red is still your favourite colour!"
There is no safe place from a mind that can slice deep into your own. Though I may have thought that my walk back home signified an end to this dreadful ordeal, in actual fact, every step I took in the direction of my own abode, was achieving nothing but to trap me securely within a web of unending horror. That night, after mother had kissed me and wished me "Sweet Dreams," I sensed the black miasma pervading the darkness of my own bedroom. I tried so hard to defy sleep and expell its stealthy presence from my brain, but my consciousness was eventually driven into dark oblivion by a will far greater than mine, and I found that Mrs. Widderson was patiently awaiting my arrival in the realm of nightmare. She looked down at me from within
that same dim-lit room of the Black House, her eyes mocking and full of hatred. In a small circle we had all been placed, unable to move so much as a muscle -- and just a little way before us was the guillotine. I looked
fearfully upon the life-size image of my waking-self that was knelt beside the guillotine, then back to the terrified faces of my young friends which had now been moulded over the countenances of the dolls. I saw my own
giant hand hover in the air, then saw the expressions of excitement and cruelty upon my own life-size face. The first of my friends was again plucked from the small circle, and all I could do was watch helplessly as the first decapitation was replayed and viewed from my new point of view. One by one my young friends were lifted up from the circle, the room growing a little darker with every thud of the blade and every scream I heard. Yet there eventually arrived a time when I stood alone upon the floor, my soul screaming to my own waking-self to make my death a swift one. But when I then studied the wakeful face of myself, I saw there only hesitation and a fear of the dark which would soon surround it. . . Yet a malign infection was most quick to enter that wakeful mind, so that with one eager movement I was snatched up by my own hand, and my wooden head quickly placed within the red-stained holding-ring of the guillotine. Then I heard the sound of the wooden handle being turned, and knew that
the blade was rising upward in the framework of the guillotine. Suddenly I heard the sound of the winding stop, and from out the corner of my eye, saw my own waking-self reaching out a hand to apply the pressure needed
to bring about a most dramatic execution. Then I heard the blade descending! Yet it was in that very same instant when I heard the voice of Mrs. Widderson, and the words that would curse me for all eternity: "Wake up!"
I was quick to realise that the threat of the eternally descending blade would stay with me for the rest of my life, and I also had no doubt it would spread to the cursed death that awaited me beyond it. Within all my waking life and all my hours of sleep, I would be plagued by the unparalleled horror experienced in that very instant when the blade descends towards the doomed man. I was a man soaked in anxiety, barely able to live my
life such was the potency of the horror that had sliced into my mind. And yet still this was not enough for the one who had put this curse upon me to remain satisfied -- for recently, in my adulthood, I was drawn into
making a return visit to the Black House. I still remembered how the south-side of town was avoided after the disappearance of my young friends; I still remembered all the rumours about Mrs. Widderson's death a few years later, and I also knew of the more recent twilight talk inferring the house was haunted in many "strange ways." I also knew that others have said the house is blackened only by reputation, and that its peculiar noises and
mists are naught but signs of its dereliction. I knew of all these things, but still I had to return to that place.
And though I was eternally cursed with the supreme anxiety experienced only by those knowing the very instant the blade descends towards the doomed man, still I forced myself to venture amongst those notorious streets and sinister buildings within the south-side of town. And upon my return there, I found the hood-like eaves and miniature spires of the houses still cast their sombre quality upon each narrow street, while the wind
sighed hermetic secrets from the past, all hinting at the darkness of every ancient, unseen occupant. This time my perpetual state of anxiety had heightened my senses to the extent I became aware of these occupants.
I sensed that they gazed outward from rooms of dimness and silence, and I imagined their corrupted lungs sucking inward the air of doom, while their black brains plotted through all the endless aeons of time. Yet my horror of the eternally descending blade was now such that I realised I could no longer experience any further dread this notorious area sought to instill within me: I already bore the ultimate horror upon my own shoulders,
and thus deflected any secondary form without conscious effort. Despite this fact, when I turned the corner of one particular street and saw the forbidding aspect of the Black House, there sliced deep into my psyche
a form of intense distaste, or unpleasantness. If one attempted to analogise this quality of unpleasantness with a sour taste or some unfortunate ingredient within a corrupt food, the only accurate comparison to make would be that of poison.
Once more I looked upon the demonic spire of the Black House, quickly noticing how the infection of time had now loosened and dispatched its coffin-shaped tiles in certain upper areas. But the sense of foreboding which should have turned me swiftly on my heels was now utterly masked by the eternal horror of the descending blade. I continued onwards, crossing the cobbled street and walking that same garden path my mother had led me along all those years before. The stonework of the house, I noticed, had also begun to crumble quite badly; and to my mind came the bizarre thought that the piles of rubble and broken tiles had broken away as though
representative of the house's will to spread its malign influence to areas beyond the south-side of town. Soon I approached that same coffin-shaped door I had passed through in my youth, though now it stood slightly ajar
and allowed me to see a quality of midnight blackness that reigned beyond. Striking a match, I took a few paces inside and looked around by courtesy of its feeble light. I could see no sign of current occupancy and not
even any indication the place had been formerly lived in. Taking a step further within, I suddenly felt something roll beneath my foot. With the light of a fresh match, I crouched to the floor and found the object to
be a quarter-burnt black candle. So the candle I gave light to, and with it I searched carefully through the darkness of the Black House, though not one sign of that corridor which Mrs. Widderson had taken me along
was now to be found. Also, there was not one piece of furniture within that dark house, and in all the time I walked, I came across no sign of the inner walls. But still I began to feel that with every passing minute
I stayed within the Black House, a significant degree of my physical strength was being steadily drained away to be replaced by some dark toxin.
It was in a small area central to the house that I found the staircase. Its winding steps appeared to be no more than blocks of pure blackness, and yet I found these would stubbornly refuse to dissolve in the glow of the candlelight. When I began to ascend the staircase, a cruel combination of coldness and fatigue began to assail my body, while in my head came those far-off
voices of my youth.
"You are doing very well, my dear -- very well!" I now realised that I could only be climbing upwards within the spire of the Black House, and even though my level of coldness increased the higher I climbed, still some dark force always drew me on. Soon I grew so weak that I could hardly continue in my ascent, yet within the darkness surrounding me, came the sight of many coffin-shaped areas of vague light. This brought to me the knowledge that I had now reached the upper regions of the spire -- the place where many of the black slates had fallen away. Putting my face to one of these oblong spaces, I let my gaze wander out over the south-side
of town. Dusk was stealthily descending upon every area now, and I knew it would be a wise thing to be afraid of the approaching night. . . if only I could have been afraid. . . In only a short time more I came upon
a door of pure blackness, and passing through it, entered inside a circular room of dormant nightmares.
Seated in the centre of the room was the corpse of Mrs. Widderson. The rocking
chair she now sat in resembled a bizarre variation of an upright coffin, while upon the floor before her was a small circle of candles, each one being black, unlit, and quarter-burnt. Around the perimeter of the room,
lain flat upon the floor but facing upwards, lay a circle of black-shrouded bodies with their hands linked eternally in death. The face of each body was identical to Mrs. Widderson's own, and as I watched, their pale lips
began to move in perfect unison.
"We have always been dead, my dear, and so are those who have now joined
within us." In the following second the circle of candles before the corpse of Mrs. Widderson flared simultaneously into life, this causing myriad, flickering shadows to play directly over her own malign visage -- and instantly her dark eyes opened to peer deep within my soul. Upon her dead face formed a sneer of sheer hatred mingled with gloating, as slowly she rose her hands upwards to show me the crimson-stained palms of each. When
I took a step backwards I immediately passed into the blackness of the door, then instantly I plunged downwards, my body gathering the ultimate dark and cold of the Black House like a massive overdose.
My consciousness returned in a very slow fashion, for now my very soul seemed chilled from the presence of the ultimate cold. When I opened my eyes, I saw the hate-filled face of Mrs. Widderson gazing down at me, studying me in the light of the single black candle she held in her hand. When I looked for her white frock with bright red roses, I saw that she wore only the most sallow of flesh, many areas stained with blotches of crimson.
"I am very pleased you could join my circle of friends!" she said. Then I knew I was lying upon the floor of her circular room within the spire, and that my own soul had now been moulded within the all encompassing soul of the twin sisters. Mrs. Widderson suddenly lifted the black candle to her pale lips, blew out the flame, and swiftly the eternally descending blade commenced its never-ending torture. When I began to scream, it was in the unified voice of the twin sisters; the black miasma gushed from our mouths to fill the circular room, then outwards it filtered from the upper-quarter of the demonic spire by way of the missing slates. Undercover of the night's darkness it spread in all directions, its rose-scented potency continually increasing as it strove once more to reach the areas beyond the south-side of the town.
© John B. Ford
"The Eternally Descending Blade" appeared first in 2000 at the Thomas Ligotti Online
Courtesy by John B. Ford.