VAMPIRE, VAMPIRISM, VAMPIRIC, VAMPY!
A collection of short stories which explore and celebrate the vampire genre with talented, world-class writers. There’s something here to delight and horrify even the most seasoned vampire fan.
Abraham R Nox, Adrian Bond, Dennis Kriesel, Emily de Rango, Eric S. Brown, Frank C. Gunderloy, Jr., Greg Beatty, H. Turnip Smith, J.R. Corcorrhan, Jean Burnett, Jennifer Moore, Joshua Alan Doetsch, Laura Cooney, Lester Thees, Liz Williams, Lorna Dickson, Miles Deacon, Mordant Carnival, Raymond T. McNally, Richard Jones, Sheri Morton-Stanley, Stephen Minchin, T. P. Keating, Tom Phillips, Trent Walters.
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Lay Your Sleeping Head
A vampire story by Jean Burnett – Featured in Fangers Inc. Volume One
The Gothique Literary Society had completed a Dracula tour with a difference: a trip to Romania with all the right attitudes in place.
“We wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea” said Max, the society’s founder and dictator, as the members enjoyed a barbecue in the Borgo Pass with Milos the coach driver rushing around carrying ‘robber’ steaks on long skewers.
“We don’t want any weirdos joining us…you know, the false-fanged, whey-faced types who would really, really like to taste someone’s blood.”
The members nodded in agreement; the society prided itself on its serious literary motives. As darkness crept over the Pass, some of them glanced uneasily out at the wolf-ridden forest, unconsciously drawing nearer to each other around the firelight, as they drank more tuica, the fiery plum brandy of the region.
Next morning, more than slightly hung over, the group swapped favourite highlights as they drove out to the airport in Bucharest.
“I think the visit to Snagov monastery was the high point for me” declared Francis Crawley, the society’s historian; “seeing the actual tomb of Vlad Dracula and knowing that it had been found empty gave me a real frisson of terror! Most agreeable, don’t you think, Leila?”
His neighbour on the back seat of the coach smiled wanly and closed her eyes. She was a slight, faded woman who could have been thirty or forty. Never again would she drink that revolting liquid known as tuica. In fact, it seemed safer not to eat or drink anything in Eastern Europe. This was her second tour and each time she had been laid low, confined to bed with what their leader had unfeelingly described as ‘a touch of the turistas’.
Lulled by the rhythm of the coach she felt pleasantly sleepy and the nauseous feelings subsided a little. Mental snapshots of the trip flashed through her mind, not Snagov, not the Borgo Pass, it had been the detour into the Czech Republic which had excited her most of all.
They had visited Csjethe, the lonely, ruined castle of the infamous Countess Bathory. Murderess, sorceress, probably insane, she had killed more than six hundred young girls believing that she could preserve her youth by bathing in the blood of virgins.
A luxurious shudder ran through Leila’s slight frame. What a dreadful story- and how reassuring to visit the scene of those horrors while safely removed from them by several centuries! She remembered staring at crumbling walls and the slits that served as windows.
The blood countess had been walled up alive in one of the rooms for the last four years of her life. Saved from execution by her royal connections she had been imprisoned in her room, deprived of light and mirrors, in solitary confinement until her death. Now the disintegrating masonry was covered with lichen and delicate white flowers grew on the scattered stones.
On impulse Leila had scooped up some of the lichen into a container to take home. She would re-pot it in London and keep it in her window box as a memento of the tour. It would remind her of the glorious scenery she had enjoyed, the snow-capped Carpathians stretching into the horizon instead of the number twelve bus passing under her window. The coach jolted her out of her reverie; Francis was holding forth again.
“One realises, doesn’t one, just what a grotty, overcrowded island Britain is after visiting Eastern Europe? All those mountains, those empty passes…the way the towns and villages end abruptly, and the wilderness begins…no ribbon development at all-glorious!”
“There’s a lot to be said for poor old England,” objected another member. “Nothing nasty in the woodshed in my neck of the woods!” He chortled on until he caught sight of the lichen perched on Leila’s suitcase. “That’s a pretty odd souvenir, Leila. Why did you bring that stuff from the castle? It’s guaranteed to give you the creeps.”
“I wouldn’t want it in my house” agreed June, the leader’s wife. “Aren’t you worried that it might be…well, tainted, dear?”
“Of course not,” Leila retorted, “why would a plant growing on the castle ruins be affected in any way? That’s superstitious nonsense.” The other speakers looked embarrassed; superstition was frowned on in the Gothique. Only one dissenting voice was heard to mutter something about the overwhelming atmosphere of evil at the castle.
The coach pulled up at the airport. Clutching assorted souvenirs, bottles of brandy and Dracula dolls the group embarked for London.
The Society was planning a ‘Frankenstein’ tour to Germany and Switzerland for the following year. That might be interesting, Leila thought, but not as deliciously horrific as the Dracula tour, not as much fun.
She sighed; fun was something conspicuously absent from her life. Now thirty-five, she’d had one or two brief affairs. Men generally did not seem to notice her. Even her brothers talked across her as if she had no real substance. It was important to have interests, hobbies, like the Gothique.
The men in the society had not shown any great interest in her either. There had been a certain amount of room swapping and nocturnal visiting during the trip, she had been aware of that. Her roommate, a sultry brunette, had disappeared several times, returning at breakfast looking tired and self-satisfied. Leila had pretended not to notice.
She had always been an avid reader: at home books vied with plants in her small flat. The tiny pot of lichen had been placed on a shelf in her bedroom next to a flourishing yucca. She glanced at the pot as she lay in bed reading another chapter of the history of Transylvania. The character of the vampire woman fascinated and repelled her. She had read everything she could find on the subject and the countess was beginning to appear in her dreams as a faint, sinister presence.
With an effort Leila looked up from the page again. The pot of lichen was on a shelf underneath a large mirror. Sitting up she could see her reflection in the shadowed glass. Eternal youth, that was what the countess had wanted. Leila frowned at her reflection; her own youth seemed to be disappearing rather faster than she had expected. The face looking back at her seemed pinched and colourless, framed in lank, dark hair. Was she imagining things or did her eyes look slightly sunken?
The tortures inflicted on her young victims by the fiendish Elizabeth Bathory were described in sickening detail; yet all that remained now were those crumbling, moss- covered stones in a forgotten corner of Europe. Involuntarily, Leila’s gaze returned to the pot of lichen. It was certainly flourishing in south London; already it covered the sides of its container. She would have to re-pot it tomorrow. She shivered and prepared to sleep; it was almost November and the room seemed permanently cold.
Three weeks later there was a meeting of the Society. Members who had been unable to go on the trip were entertained with photographs and descriptions of Romania, irreverent anecdotes about the leaders and scandalous gossip wherever possible.
Several people enquired after the lichen, the ‘gruesome relic’ as it had been dubbed. Leila assured them that it was quite harmless and growing well. She didn’t tell them just how fast it was growing, covering everything around it with incredible speed so that she was forced to cut it back every day. Surely lichen didn’t spread that quickly? Perhaps it was a special variety-she would have to look it up at the Institute library.
Lately her work had become a burden to her. It was difficult to shake off a feeling of lethargy. Obviously, she was coming down with a heavy cold or “flu-also the bedroom was so cold. She helped herself to a sausage roll at the buffet. Nearby, two young female members whispered together.
“Don’t you think that Leila Mitchell looks really washed out these days? She needs to brighten herself up with some decent clothes, more makeup.”
“She needs a man!” retorted her companion as they moved off, sniggering.
Leila pretended not to have heard and sipped her white wine. One of the elderly members, a professor of some kind, she recalled, was droning on about the flora and fauna of Eastern Europe. Her eyes glazed over until she remembered the lichen; this man might be able to offer an explanation.
He was only too willing. Scarcely pausing for breath he launched into a flood of information. “Of course, your lichen would be one of the crustose variety. What colour is it?”
“Well, whiteish” said Leila slowly, “whiteish-grey really” The professor nodded and rushed on, “they grow very well on almost any surface that isn’t too polluted-even on glass. Lichens secrete acid, you know, so they can eat away at any surface including rocks.”
“But the speed,” interrupted Leila, “it grows so fast.
“Oh no,” said the professor decisively, “lichen is very slow- growing indeed. Your specimen sounds very strange, it must be peculiar to the area.”
Later that evening when Leila arrived back at the flat, she went straight into the bedroom. The feeling of unease that she had tried to suppress rose into full-blown alarm as she stared at the ledge where the pot stood. The fungus was now growing over the shelf and was starting to climb up the mirror. The professor had said it could grow on glass. Feeling too tired to do anything she went to bed shivering as usual. The temperature in the room seemed to drop every evening and the cold numbed her as she curled into a ball and tried to sleep. The feeling of threat and general malaise persisted in her dreams. She saw clearly a desolate hillside scattered with stones; ruined walls covered with the familiar greyish fungus. Unseen in the background lurked something evil that did not materialise.
She woke at dawn feeling exhausted: hysteria gripped her as she saw that the lichen was now spreading across the floor towards her bed. Frantically she scraped it into plastic bags and dumped it in the garbage area outside. Then she sprinkled disinfectant everywhere before putting on two sweaters and her warmest coat. The bedroom was colder than ever.
At the Institute, the staff remarked on her drawn, tired appearance. The Director asked her if she would like to take a few days off. Leila shuddered inwardly at the suggestion. She considered going away for a while or moving her bed to another room, but she did not want to throw the pot of lichen away. The thought was growing in her mind that the fungus wanted to reach her, needed her in some way. June had been right-it was tainted.
Reluctantly, at five o’clock she went home, bracing herself before opening the bedroom door. With a surge of relief she saw that the lichen had spread very little since the morning; the disinfectant must have helped. She moved a small heater into the room to take the chill away before cooking supper. Afterwards she would go to see a film to calm her nerves.
Before going to bed that evening, she poured herself a tot of whisky and left the heater on. It was expensive but the cold was unbearable. The bedroom was still several degrees colder than the rest of the flat.
Gradually she felt the familiar lethargy creep into her brain. She must have switched off the light because the room was bathed in a soft grey mist. Leila’s eyes were closed but somehow, she could see the lichen rippling and swaying in its pot, overflowing onto the floor and moving towards her. Through the mist she thought she could see the shadowy outline of a woman standing at the end of the bed.
Paralysed by the cold, Leila lay rigid as the lichen seemed to curl around the woman’s feet. She stretched out her arms and Leila had a sudden longing to throw herself into them. Lines from a poem she had once read came into her mind,
‘Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm’
The woman smiled a beautiful, thin, cruel smile and beckoned to her. Leila realised that she was walking over the soft, clammy fungus. The woman bent her head towards her, and the room instantly filled with a numinous, crimson light. Blood red… blood was the last thing she remembered as she fell.
Leila Mitchell’s death caused shock waves at the Institute. When she failed to arrive at the office someone called at the flat to find a hysterical landlady and several grim-faced police officers. The circumstances of her death, bizarre and unpleasant as they were, received wide coverage in certain newspapers. The landlady had found the body.
“It was terrible…just terrible” she said in a trembling voice. “I’ll never be able to use that room again. She was lying on the floor and her body was completely drained of blood. That foul grey fungus was everywhere…” the woman hesitated, and her voice trembled again. “It was even growing over her face.”
(c) Jean Burnett, All Rights Reserved.Featured image by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash