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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A vampire story by Liz Williams – Featured in Fangers Inc. Volume One
On the day that the box was brought aboard, the first mate told me that it would be the cause of all our deaths, and I felt a great happiness at the notion. None of us, of course, knew what the box contained, although there were plenty of rumours. One man said that it held a suit of armour, brought all the way from China and encrusted with rubies like drops of bloody fire. The sailor who told me this swore on his mother’s grave that it was true, for he said that he had glimpsed the rubies through a crack in the black boards of the box and they glittered crimson-cold. But when I pressed him, he admitted that he did not know whether his mother were alive or dead, and thus I smiled and put little store by his tales of eastern armour. Another man told me that the box contained a mass of insects, for he had seen a locust sitting on the lid, a bright clasp against the ebony wood, and when he had reached out to touch it, it sprang into the air with a rattle of wings and was gone. But there had been a terrible dry rustling from inside the box and he had not paused to listen more.
I did not investigate the box myself. I did not have time. As one of the youngest and lowliest members of the Demeter’s crew, I was kept busy in the hold and in the rigging. When they brought the box on board, however, I was up in the crows-nest. I saw it being carried slowly across the deck, a patch of shadow that seemed to cast its own darkness in the brightness of the July sunlight. Mesmerised, I watched it glide along, the men who carried it no longer visible in the pall that it cast. Then I saw them move aside and lash it securely to the deck. There were other boxes, too, but they looked ordinary enough. I perched in the crows-nest, swaying with the movements of the ship, the gulls wheeling around me like the white spirits of the dead. I remember the words of the first mate and, looking up into the sunlit heavens, prayed that this would be my last voyage.
I had never wanted to be a sailor, never longed for the lure of the sea. My heart had lain in the land, in the little patch of ground surrounded by forest, on which my mother grew vegetables: currants redder than any eastern ruby, peas like fat skeins of jade beads, potatoes brought up from the black soil every year like treasure. My mother and my sisters and I worked the land and were happy, until the night when the soldiers came. They took my mother and sisters and raped them as I watched, then threw torches into the shack and beat me until I lay as one dead. They threw me on a patch of earth, by a wall. I could not move. I remember watching as a tiny moth, with wings marbled black and white like the bark of a birch tree, crawled from the wall and settled on my bruised face. It made my skin itch, but I could not lift my hand and brush it away. More moths crept from the wall as twilight fell, whirring up into the dusk, and I faded beneath their wings as though they drew my life up with them.
When I awoke again, the ground beneath me looked as though a frost had come, but it was summer. The earth had been salted. I do not even know where they had come from: which army, which war.
I buried my family in this new sea-earth and walked for fifty miles until I reached the coast and the harbour at Varna, to see if there might be a ship on which I could work passage.
There was such a ship. But I was an innocent boy, knowing little of life and its darkness. When the men took me down to the hold and used me as the soldiers had used my mother and sisters, I barely understood what they were doing. I knew only the pain, and when they were done with me, I crept away into the shadows to nurse my wounds as best I could.
It did not happen again after that, nor on the next ship I caught passage on, but it did not matter. The damage had been done. I went through my days like a ghost, as though my childhood had never been. I sailed all the way to the South Seas, but the sun seemed to bleach all the brightness from life, leaving the black shadows in all the more contrast. I could never really feel its warmth on my skin, though it left my face and arms scarlet and sore. The chattering of the jewel-vivid birds sounded hollow and remote, as though they were no more than clockwork toys. I had no words for this, then. I was only a peasant, forced to go to sea. It is only now that I can truly speak of how things felt to me. I would have taken my own life, had not my mother always spoken of it with such horror, as one of the worst of all sins.
In the end, I was glad to come back to Varna, to the colder seas of the north, to a world where the outside matched the inside. It was a relief to wake up to the frost on the windowpane, to trudge through the snow, to not pretend to be happy. When the short summer finally arrived and the next berth came up, I was pleased, if one can attribute so strong a term to so distant an emotion, to see that it was headed out of Varna to Whitby, a port on the north-east coast of England. The cargo was silver sand, which was dull enough. I had heard that England was cold and damp, a land filled with mist even in summer.
The ship had been commissioned by a foreign prince, to take the box to England. There was much talk of this lord. He was old, some people said. Others said that he was a young man, and handsome. He had come to the captain at night and paid in gold. His name was Vlad Dracul, a name verging on the east, redolent of the mountains. There were whispers and rumours: an old man who scraped a living from the whelks that congregated on the sides of the harbour wall, remembered a man of the same name, seventy years before. But all these eastern princes are jealous of their lineage: doubtless our man was the son or grandson of someone of the same name. I listened to the rumours with half an ear, but it was no more than the customary dockside gossip and my sorrow still consumed me, eating me from within. I did not pay much heed to the thoughts of others.
A day or so later, we cast off. Varna was soon left behind in the early morning mist and we had to row, but once we reached the open channel a light east wind blew up and filled the sails. The men muttered among themselves and spoke of storms. I found my hopes rising a little with the wind. Perhaps this would be the storm that sent me down into the mercy of the cold water. It was, they said, a swift death, the lungs freezing before they could even fill.
But the weather remained fair and sometime later we came down through the Bosphorus, passing the enchanted minarets of Constantinople. We stopped for only a little time, not long enough to go ashore. Next day, we sailed through the Dardanelles and onwards.
I do not know what woke me that night. I know that it was very early in the morning, but not in the small cold hours after midnight. When I went up to the deck to piss over the side, there was a kind of brilliance to the sky that heralded the approach of dawn. The clouds had drawn back, and the stars were hanging very low, an icy glitter in the heavens. The air was filled with the reek of salt and at first, I paid no attention to this, but just as I fastened my breeches, I felt the hair prickle up on the back of my neck. I spun around, only to see a great pale gull sitting on the rim of the ebony box.
The box was open.
I ran forward, flapping my arms. The gull took off and soared up toward the stars. I found myself looking down into the box and saw that it was lined with soil, as black and crumbling as the good earth of our little farmstead, before the soldiers came. I had a sudden longing to touch it. I reached into the box and took out a small handful, which I put in my pocket. Doing so made me feel suddenly real, alive again for a flickering instant after the ghost-world through which I had been walking. But the smell was growing stronger. Filled with sudden foreboding, I walked around the foc’s’le and saw someone lying on the deck. He was unmoving, and the boards beneath him gleamed red in the light of the swaying lantern. With fear rising in my throat, I touched the person on the shoulder and rolled him over. It was one of the crew, a man named Petrofsky, and his throat had been torn open. I stood staring for a horrified moment, then ran for the captain’s quarters. As I did so, I saw something out of the corner of my eye: a dark shadowy shape, crouched on the end of the foc’s’le, leaning forward. Then it was gone, up into the air as swiftly as the gull.
By the time I had roused the captain and the first mate and gone back up on deck, the sky was a pearly grey, and the edge of the sun was creeping over the horizon. The ebony box was tightly shut, and the captain cuffed me like a dog for telling lies. Its seals were intact, he said, and nothing could have opened it. I said nothing about the earth, for it proved nothing and I did not want him to take it away from me.
The ship buzzed all day, humming like a horror-filled hive. There were many opinions. Some said that it was a pirate attack, but this seemed absurd: why go to the trouble of slaying Petrofsky and not the rest of the crew? A more likely explanation seemed to be that it was another crewmember, someone who held a grudge against Petrofsky, but he had been reasonably well liked and there were no obvious suspects. One by one, over the course of the day, I saw each crewman’s eyes slide to the box and linger, questioning. But this time there were no whispers, and the sea was as calm as glass.
Toward late afternoon, however, the clouds boiled up. Soon the storm hit in full force, tossing the ship from wave to plunging wave. It lasted for some four or five hours. We lost no one, and the box remained securely tied to the deck. Both, the crew agreed, were miracles. The captain came out to view the results of the storm: a tattered sail, which would have to be mended. By now the storm had passed as swiftly as it had come, not uncommon in these waters, leaving us afloat in a still sea with a faint crescent moon hanging overhead, lost in chasing cloud. We would have to wait until morning to repair the sail: it was too dark to see properly now. The crew settled to the sleep of exhaustion. The captain himself took the watch.
Next day, the captain called us all onto deck and said that there had been rumours that someone was on the ship. He chided us for superstitious fools and said that we would search the vessel from end to end, to prove to our own satisfaction that there was no murdering stowaway on board. We did so and found no one.
By this time, we were drawing near to Gibraltar and in a day or so, we passed the Straits and at length, we were out into the Bay of Biscay.
That night, however, there was no question of my waking, for I did not sleep. I lay staring into the darkness of the tarred boards beside my hammock, listening. Gradually, the breathing of the men around me deepened and some began to snore. I did not understand how they could rest unless it was from pure exhaustion. I heard a creak above my head and the skitter of many tiny feet across the boards. I sat up, startled, causing the hammock to rock. There were rats on board the ship, but surely not so many. I did not want to go up onto the deck and look, but I could not stop myself. I thought that they might be leaving the ship, that we were about to sink, and my hopes rose. My feet were over the edge of the hammock and I was padding up the steps before I fully realised what I was doing.
Outside, the ship lay quietly under the moon. I could see the man on watch at the prow and the brief flare of his pipe as he lit it.
And then I saw the rats.
There must have been two dozen of them or more. I had never seen so many in one place. They poured over the deck, a rippling tide of dark fur. The boat rested tranquil in the water, listing only a little, as was usual for this vessel.
In the next instant, the rats were moving upward, forming a column as tall as a man. It was not like some circus trickery, with furry little beasts standing on one another’s shoulders. The rats merged together into a single whole, as if pressed together by the air around them. The watchman stared, paralysed. Then the column, by now a black and formless mass, struck. It was so swift that I was not sure whether or not I cried out. The man was falling, shrivelling, and the deck was suddenly awash with blood. The rat-mass seemed to swell, growing bloated as if water-logged. It turned, and I found myself looking up at something that was half a man. Black, shiny eyes were gazing down at me. I saw the glint of sharp teeth in a white face. It said, “You. You have known pain. You are all pain.”
The voice was soft, but it was not like the voice of a man. I was no longer afraid, but I could not speak. I stood staring at it, expecting at any moment for it to strike, but it did not. It strode past me and disappeared around the corner of the foc’s’le, leaving the husk of its victim behind it.
I crept back to my hammock. Next morning, I said nothing of what I had seen. I did not think I would be believed, and I feared being blamed for the watchman’s death. The atmosphere of the ship was as taut as a strung wire. That afternoon, the weather worsened.
It was already late, close to evening and dusk was sweeping over the sea. The mood on the ship became even tenser and I could smell the men’s fear, hanging in a pall over the vessel. But I was not afraid. I was certain that this would be the night of my death, of all our deaths, and I was aware only of anticipation, and relief that the time had finally come. High on the rigging, I reached out my hand as if I could touch the faces of my mother and sisters, hanging before me in the growing dark. The ship pitched and tossed in the rising swell and I made my way carefully downward. I was afraid of falling, of injury and pain, but the rat-king, the bloodsucker, had been mercifully quick.
There was little chance of sleep that night. All hands were ordered onto the deck, to keep the ship afloat. The captain paced among us and I could see that he was sick with fear. Night drew on and the storm with it, until the ship was surrounded by great walls of churning water. It was close to midnight when we suddenly crested a wave and came out into a calm, silent stretch of sea.
It was very strange. I could see the storm raging around us, the huge waves sliding by, but the ship sailed on into a long path of sea. We were safe from the waves. And that was when the killing began.
This time, he did not rise as a rat, but as a man. I was at the stern of the ship, hauling on ropes that were suddenly slack, and so I did not see the lid slide open and the killer within emerge. The first I knew of it were the terrible shouts and cries from the prow of the Demeter. I ran forward. I did not want to be overlooked.
By the time I reached him, Dracul was beginning to slow a little, but the killing was still beast-quick. I stood in front of him and closed my eyes, but nothing happened. I opened them again to see that he had stepped past me and was killing on. I ran after him and tugged at his bloody cloak.
“Me!” I cried. “Do not forget me!”
He turned. He looked more like a man and I saw the surprise in his face.
“You are the pain boy. Yet you seek more pain?”
“I seek death.”
He reached out a long-nailed hand and touched my face. It was like being caressed by a statue. His hands were cold and marble hard; the blood did not seem to have clung to them. I felt my memories flow down my skin and into his fingers, as though he was drawing blood indeed. And then I was falling to the deck, unconscious.
Next day, I found that the first mate had brought me to my hammock, and we were sailing on through a dense mist. The ship was quiet. The first mate remained closeted in the captain’s cabin for most of the day, and they emerged later with tense, tight faces. There were by now so few of the crew that I took the watch that night.
This time it was not Dracul that disturbed me, but the first mate. I heard him arguing with the captain, then a despairing cry through the fog and the captain’s voice raised: “Man overboard!”
We did not find the mate, and the captain, face haggard, told me his private view: that the mate himself had gone mad, and slain his fellow-crewmembers. I could see from his manner that he did not want to hear the truth and so I kept silent. The ship was still wreathed in fog, as though we had become no more than a ghost-ship, sailing on through silence.
That night, we both took watch. I do not know what the captain might have seen, or thought, but when I reached him, I saw that he had tied his hands to the wheel.
This time, Dracul came for us both. He appeared before me, towering out of the air, taking his rat form. The captain died in no more than a moment. And then the rat-lord turned to me.
“Why do you not kill me?” I cried in a passion. “Can you not see that I wish to die?”
He laughed. The sloe-black eyes were animal and cold. “Can you not see that this is why I have not slain you? But perhaps I have some small human mercy, after all.”
He bent his head and bit. There was an instant of savage pain, then pleasure greater than any I had ever felt, then nothing.
I was looking down at my body on the deck. I felt no attachment to it; I was glad to be rid of it. I looked around for my mother and sisters, but I could not see them, only the spectral form of the dead captain, gliding upward. The boat was sailing on through the fog, my saviour’s tall figure at the helm. I had no urge to go anywhere. Instead, I watched with detached interest as the blood that covered my body began to congeal, hardening until there was only a dark-red bundle lying on the deck, completely concealed like a sarcophagus, with only a tiny reed-wide hole for the mouth. It was this that sucked me in and swallowed me. I resisted, but it was too late. I was back in my body, but it was no longer the form I had known. It was changing, breaking down into a liquid softness that was so comforting I sank into it, and slept.
I woke to voices.
“Dear God. They’re all dead…”
“Something has butchered them – a beast from the deep, perhaps?”
“Or the devil himself.”
I looked out through paper thin walls, tinged faintly with red. A man was standing next to me: I could see the back of his boot heels. He stepped away and a gust of wind caught me and blew me upward.
“What is that?” someone cried, and the second voice answered, “Only moths. They must have been sleeping in the hold.”
But I did not stop to hear more. As I flew, in my myriad new form, over the steep grey roofs of the town, following the silver line of the river as it led inland, I vowed that I would be his worshipper from this day on, and do his will, for he had saved me from the sea and from the passions of men, and this was worth all the worship in the world.
(c) Liz Williams, All Rights Reserved.Featured image by Maximilian Weisbecker on Unsplash