In September, TDS hosted a writing contest that was named after Professor Jon Meyers, The Jon Meyers Dark Humour Prize for Gothic Literature (a.k.a. The Jon Meyers Gothic Prize). Entries were read in October with the winners – selected by Meyers himself – announced on October 31st, just in time for Halloween. The winners were:
Now, over the next two days, all four short stories will be released individually to celebrate Contemporary Gothic Literature. And what better time to release them than December, when the cold bite of snow and ice warrants snuggling into a warm blanket in the dark? These four stories may not be Christmas-related, but they definitely fit into the Gothic tradition of storytelling during the Christmas season.
So without further ado, sit back, snuggle down, and grab your cocoa as you nestle into read…
To Cross a Vampire
by Steven Lombardi
Whitely believed in speaking to the point of pain, and that a raw throat had no better remedy than a bottle of red. He feared God and loved humankind and believed God’s greatest gift to man was not life, but freewill. This, he knew, made us opinionated. And if opinions were part of the Great Plan, then Whitely would no sooner hold his tongue than commit heresy.
“Vampires are poetic creatures,” he declared to the people of the pub. “And like many lovers of poetry, they are sticklers for the language.”
“It makes sense enough to me, sir,” said Whitely’s dearest friend Ted, being the only one paying active attention to the words. Ted had developed a callus for Whitely’s lengthy rants, or as Whitely fondly considered, Ted had fortified his mind to radical insights.
“Because vampires, ya see, claim to have great strengths and weaknesses. They’ve the power of ten Grizzlies yet are killed by harmless things. Garlic. Water. Sunlight? These are undamaging things. But it’s been written, and being lovers of poetry, and sticklers for language, they must honor and obey these weaknesses to the letter of the law for the simple reason that they honor and obey the language!”
Ted scratched the hairs peppering his chin rolls and nodded.
“Then by any means and measures, a person should be able to defeat a vampire using their language solely. Because, again, they are so compliant to the rules that had been created, which have been inscribed using language most beautiful and revered. You see?”
“Of course, sir,” said Ted, who didn’t really see, or understand the rules of vampires, other than a stake through the heart made them dead.
“I say, if I had the gumption, I’d march out to Thinberry Castle with only a flask to free my inhibitions and give that vamp a tongue lashing that would leave him skinless!”
This declaration was followed by silence, which was rare. Silence signaled that one had been listened to, which was all Whitely wanted and seldom received, yet this quiet communicated something more. Something uncomfortable. It came accompanied by a man standing near the entrance, whose brooding presence captured the pub’s drunken attention.
He was tall and dark, with various knives and teeth slung along his waist. He had a glare that could make a man drink, and Whitely did precisely that when their eyes met. The man glided into the seat beside Whitely, perfuming the air with sweat, and in his generous sips of red, Whitely could taste the man’s skin.
“Friend! Drink with us and be merry,” Whitely said, not meaning a word of it. “What brings you to these parts?”
“Work.” The man spoke as if it were a curse word, and a person of inferior conversation skills would have just left it at that.
“Ah, work,” Whitely retorted. “It feeds the stomach, but in more ways, it feeds the soul.”
“If I fail, my eternal soul is forfeited.”
Ted’s many neck rolls wobbled in an attempt to swallow a lump.
“So, you’re a banker?” Whitely ventured with a wink.
The man maintained a stare that Whitely had seen in goats. Whether the man could blink, if he had eyelids, Whitely could not say.
“That’s a mighty fine service to the community,” Ted offered. “I’m sure you’ve seen the bulletins around town, then. About the Earl’s daughter Penelope….”
“You know the location of Castle Thinberry.” It wasn’t a question, but a statement. And yes, Whitely knew, it was five acres outside his childhood home. A place he swore he’d never return.
“We go there tonight,” the vampire hunter said.
“I can’t think of a more splendid way to spend my evening, but unfortunately I have a prior engagement that I must attend,” said Whitely.
“Really, sir? Where about?”
“You know, Ted. My plans. That thing.”
The vampire hunter produced a dagger that spun atop the table. He stomped on the floorboard, sending its tip tumbling towards Whitely’s manhood. It landed a foot short, but still Whitely crossed his legs.
“I mean to deliver the girl to the Earl. And I mean to do it tonight.”
Whitely considered the man more carefully. His muscles were lean, all capacity without the cosmetics, and his scarred skin told stories of many battles, some deep, others faded. And the way he retrieved the knife, moving in a blur, like something only possible in a dream.
“You kill vampires,” Whitely said. It wasn’t a question, but a realization. “If we accompany you, will you share the riches?”
They shook hands and left the pub.
Whitely had made good on his word. He marched to Thinberry Castle with only a flask to protect him from the night’s creatures. The moon hid behind blankets of cloud, rendering all things dark, though Whitely knew the land enough to navigate it. These hills were his childhood home. In a time before the creatures appeared, he thought he’d never leave.
But they had come in the night, snatching the wayward traveler from the main road, or seducing their victims out of windows. So Whitely and the other survivors fled to the protection of the cities. However, no place was safe, not truly. A city was like a school of fish, where the only defense was the probability of someone else getting taken. Like the Earl’s darling Penelope. Or people Whitely loved, though he’d rather drink than think about that.
The white wolf pelt over Whitely’s shoulders caught the diffused light and multiplied it. Ted huffed the cool hill air, kicking at rocks with his oversized shoes, while the vampire hunter clung to the darkness, as good as gone.
“Did you mean what you said back there at the pub?” Ted asked with his outdoor voice. “About fighting vampires with your words?”
“Yes, indeed.” Whitely spoke with the deepest conviction, for his father once said that convictions shape the world. “As logophiles, vampires are attracted to rhetorical devices, which are dangerously persuasive things. You will see, good friend. I will persuade them to death.”
“Rhetorical devices? Wow. Good thing I’m traveling with the Connoisseur of Conversation and a full-time vampire hunter. Otherwise a chubby little man like me might be in danger.”
Whitely drank to that. Then he drank some more. Then he tried to quiet the mounting doubt. He thought of his father and the headstone he claimed was his father’s grave, though they never found the body, nor did they look. And he wondered, if the world was truly shaped by those who acted with conviction, then why hadn’t his father fled when the bloodsuckers came from him.
“Would be nice to have treasure, sir. And imagine all the stories you could tell when we get back to the pub.”
From the shadows came a voice that was low and sharp, like a slice to the heel.
“Quiet. Vampires have sensitive hearing.”
Ted’s lips popped as his jaw closed.
“I thought you were polar opposites,” the voice continued. “Now I see you’re both big-mouthed idiots.”
“Oh, we’re opposites,” Ted continued against all sense. “See, I’m short and stout while Whitely’s lanky. My hair’s dark, Whitely’s isn’t. And I talk a lot when I’m about to piss meself with fright, while Whitely stays quiet. According to the laws of magnetism, you see, opposites attract while—”
A low growl stole the words from his mouth.
“We go in silence.”
Thinberry Castle stood atop a hill, cast before a blanket of starless gray sky. The stone looked nothing like how Whitely remembered it. It had decayed to the color of soil, or taken the likeness of old blood. Hills once renowned for their beautiful flowerbeds were brown. Nothing stirred, not even the wind, and the silence left a buzzing in Whitely’s ear that grew steadily unbearable. The vampire hunter walked past him, then blended into the night without a trace, making Whitely regret his fashionably forward white shawl, which now glowed in the dark.
“What’s the plan?” Ted whispered.
Whitely drank some more, then he heard a noise that made him choke. It came from the castle’s barn, the braying of a frightened beast. A horse, no doubt belonging to darling Penelope or stolen for her benefit. All the same, it gave him an idea for a plan, which he whispered into Ted’s ear. Whitely dubbed it the super-secret plan, and had Ted recite it back to him using his indoor voice.
Whitely approached the double doors of the castle alone, where the brooding vampire hunter inspected the entry for traps. The vampire hunter cast a gaze at Whitely, as if to say Where’s your friend?
Whitely gestured in response, as if to say Pissing in the woods.
Although in truth, Ted was carrying out Whitely’s daring plan of rescue, which relied on the element of surprise. For that reason, he felt little need to tell the vampire hunter.
The vampire hunter applied sunflower oil to the hinges, then pulled the door open with great care, slow as to silence the patches of rust and corrosion. The door was not a foot open when he breathed a sigh of relief and slipped in. Whitely followed. With his vision gone to darkness and his other senses heightened, Whitely could sense the sour stench of death in the back of his throat. He drank to refresh his palate, hoping it’d soothe his nerves and douse the anger that burned in his heart.
Had his father entered this place? Was he dragged dead or alive across the threshold, or tempted into the dark chambers of the castle? Whitely couldn’t say anything other than that in his father’s final moments, he experienced a lapse in conviction. Not a total loss, not his father, but a mere slip through which vampire teeth snuck in and sank down. Now was Whitely’s time to pay blood for blood.
He moved blindly through the foyer, imagining he’d collide into suits of armor destined to clatter to the floor. The silence rang in his ears and his heartbeat filled his head, surely attracting the vampires’ attention.
Whitely heard an owl’s hooting when they moved beyond the foyer, followed by a horse’s braying. This had been Ted’s signal, which meant the super-secret plan had worked. Penelope had been rescued. But this alone wasn’t enough.
“Vampires!” Whitely screamed. “Yoo-hoo! We’re in your house!”
A spark erupted in a pall of sulfurous air. The fire sticks burned in the vampire hunter’s hand, lighting the shock on his sunken features.
“You’re a familiar,” he said. He produced a knife and aimed for Whitely’s heart.
“I’m familiar with the art of riveting conversation, if that’s what you mean.”
The vampire hunter stiffened, aware of an unseen presence. Whitely sensed it too, an icy chill carried in by no wind. Red eyes appeared in the darkness beyond the reach of the fire’s light. A frosty breath at the back of Whitely’s neck burned his skin. At the door, their only known exit, Whitely saw the man who presumably killed his father, Marcus Thinberry.
The vampire looked nothing like the romantic stories suggested. The flesh was pale, as the poems described, though it was lined with veins that looked like prongs of corroded lightning. Coagulated blood pooled beneath Marcus’s eyes and between his thin blue smile the decayed gums held no teeth but two, rotted through like pickled wood.
“Welcome, weary travelers, to the Chateau de Thinberry.” The vampire bowed. “Some call my home a sprawling estate of death. I see it as a state of pleasure so fit for the Dieux des Ténèbres.” The chittering of cicadas resounded in the room, and Whitely realized it was vampires advancing, the rattling of their bones. They stepped into the light, dozens of thirsty servants of the night, to challenge the vampire hunter and his lone wooden stake.
“Whoa, whoa, wait!” Whitely exclaimed. He took another sip for courage and spoke with conviction: “I always thought hospitality the most flattering feature of a chateau as grand as yours.”
Marcus raised a bony hand that concluded with five pointed edges, sharp enough to peel skin. His minions paused.
“My friend,” said Marcus. “You have trespassed upon my property and, by the laws of the land, your wellbeing is left to our discretion. How else should a master keep his servants safe, happy and sustained if not to dispatch of a threat when given ample opportunity?”
The vampires took another step.
“But colleague, you have been misinformed,” Whitely said. “We are not trespassers, for the wind breaks no laws by entering windows, nor does the stray leaf that flitters into a barn. Your door was open, and being native to these hills, I know this to be as true an invitation as any. Pair that with your earlier words, ‘Welcome, weary travelers,’ and I’d say we’re rightly protected by the customs of a gracious host.”
Whitely winked at the vampire hunter, who now gripped the torch with his teeth and held a cross and stake at the wall of shambling flesh, whose many eyes remained trained on their master, waiting for him to snap his fingers and be done with the charade.
“Sweet darling,” Marcus began. He sucked his tongue, the flesh flapping in his mouth. “Please don’t misconstrue my words or actions, for I am a gracious host of a grand estate whose deeds of hospitality are as numerous as the stars. For I have in my host an army of forty lost souls, who live here under my lease, and whose needs must be met, lest they grow unhappy. And for you, my daring chap, my hillside compatriot, what better gift can I bestow than eternal life? All in exchange for your life’s blood, which you treat so cruelly by infecting it with that dreadful wine.”
“Eternal life is a lie,” the vampire hunter said with the torch in his mouth. “All you’ll know is eternal damnation.” He wielded his cross against the horde, beating them back inch by inch, but not without strain. Whitely noted the trembling muscles in vampire hunter’s powerful legs. Every swing was less spirited than the last, and when the hunter gasped for air, Whitely’s own heart rattled.
No, none of that, came the small voice in his mind. Remember, convictions shape the world.
“My love!” Whitely trumpeted. “Surely there are better ways to entertain. In my modest cottage, we served food and drink to our guests, and not, as you’re implying, make food and drink of them. Surely you have various stores of breads, meats and cheeses—”
“Enough,” Marcus said. His slender fingers came together, ready to snap and unleash the full strength of his horde, when the front door opened.
Ted entered, scraping his muddy boots at the entry, always minding his manners, and waving bashfully.
“Hullo, there,” Ted said.
“What… who are you?” Marcus said.
“They call me Ted, sir,” he said, doffing his hat. To Whitely, “I’ve done the super-secret plan.”
“Why’d you return?” Whitely asked. This wasn’t part of the super-secret plan. Ted should be back in town by now, amassing a mob in the event that Whitely’s own conviction should fail. And as Ted answered, the vampires howled within proximity of the cross.
“I wanted to see how this played out,” Ted said.
“That’s simple, my tender plump confidant,” Marcus said. With a snap of his fingers, the cross exploded the vampire hunter’s hand, sending blood and bits of meat around the room for the vampires to lick and chew. “You now fall victim to my gracious hospitality.”
“Not quite!” Whitely said. He threw his arms in the air, made himself look bigger than he actually was. He heard that worked against bears. “As you well know, vampires are harmed by crosses. It renders you defenseless and causes agonizing pain, as has been recorded and followed faithfully by your kind for eons! In fact, the mere mention of a cross makes you feel ill. Your skin grows clammy, though without the warmth of lifeblood, you’re reminded of how cold you truly are, how far from God you’ve drifted, and how the coldness is unbearable.”
“I’ve destroyed your cross,” Marcus said. His voice betrayed confidence and his dead skin turned to gooseflesh. “But for some stakes and knives, you are powerless.”
“False!” Whitely said. “Because although you are unaware, my comrade has freed the Earl’s daughter, placed her on a horse and sent her back to the safety of her father!”
Magnolia white skin paled, and Marcus stooped as if under the weight of a roaring river. The vampire looked at Ted, making calculations and trying to understand if such an unassuming man were capable of such a daring feat.
“It’s true, sirs,” Ted said. “I did a pass around the castle and found the one window that hadn’t been boarded up. So I starts making calls for a cat.” He paused. “Not cat calls, of course, sirs, I’d never. Calls like this: psst, psst, psst. Then Penelope appeared and jumped into my arms. I pulled my hammy, I did! But could the girl talk. In just a breath she told me how Marcus captured her and tried to court her every evening, and how he’d not touch a hair on her head, which I thought a respectable quality. Then zoom, off she went on horseback.”
Marcus contorted backwards, as if taken by an interpretative dance that Whitely lacked the culture to understand. “Your deaths will be agonizing,” he wailed.
“Not so fast,” Whitely yelled. “You see, my courteous host, in this brazen act of defiance, we have rendered ourselves immune to your worse doings, and, in fact, have become very damaging to you! For Ted and I have crossed you!”
Convictions, baby, his mind chattered. Stay strong, for the love of your father.
“It’s the greatest cross of your afterlife. One you can’t explode with your fingers. The simple act of looking at us causes you discomfort. When we come too near, you feel the burn in your skin. So I say, come and get us. I dare you. Take a bite and perish.”
The vampires made no effort to move, mulling over this new information. Brimming with conviction and swimming in liquid confidence, Whitely nearly charged them head on, his own hunger advertised in his eyes. But the castle remained still and silent, except for the handless vampire hunter who sobbed on a blood-soaked Moroccan carpet.
Ted, always a thoughtful chap, offered his chunky forearm for Marcus to bite, and the vampire recoiled.
“Why?” Marcus said. “You took my love from me. My darling Penelope, with blue roses in her eyes.”
“Ya that’s right,” Ted said, driving Marcus further back with his luscious flesh.
Emboldened and surrendering to his primal calls, Whitely rushed at the wall of vampires and watched them scatter into the cracks like roaches.
“What do you reckon we do now?” asked Ted.
Whitely hadn’t thought about an exit strategy. Obviously, the vampires needed killing, and he would love nothing more than to show them the mercy they had shown his father. Though, he would admit, he wasn’t much of a vampire killer. He didn’t like killing bugs, if it could be avoided, and while vampires weren’t much prettier, they were larger and somewhat defensible.
“We let our vampire hunter friend here do the rest,” Whitely decided.
Unfortunately, the vampire hunter seemed too occupied with bleeding out. His stump spurted onto the carpets, which flavored the air in a way that turned the vampires’ eyes to burning coals in the darkness, and some ventured into the light, despite the agony of being crossed.
“This is your fault,” the vampire hunter spat. “I could have dealt with them and left here a whole man. But you…”
Events followed that unfolded too fast, or perhaps Whitely’s mind had slipped for a moment, or perhaps the vampire hunter was something more than he appeared to be. The hand that nursed a bloody stub now held a blade that pressed against the soft space between Whitely’s ribs, aligned with his heart, where a quick puncture would turn Whitely into a fountain. And vampires who, for a time, had an aversion to the two friends were now coming uncomfortably close, wafting in lingering death smells.
“Something’s happened,” Ted observed. He pulled his arm away from Marcus before being bitten.
The knife at Whitely’s chest vanished in a red mist. A second breeze kissed Whitely’s face like frostbite, and then he found the vampire hunter ten feet away with vampires tearing at his flesh. Ted ran to Whitely’s side, and they held each other.
“Esteemed house guests,” Marcus purred. “I must admit, I was deeply concerned for a moment. You nearly had us. But alas, you no longer seem as repulsive as you once were. Dare I say, you actually look mouthwatering.”
“Uh oh,” Ted said. “Seems we were crossed by the vampire hunter.”
“What of it?” Whitely screamed. All sense of conviction failed him.
“Well, sir,” Ted began. He explained it with his fingers. “It seems our cross was met with a double cross. And according to the laws of mathematics, two negatives equal a positive. I’m afraid we’re even Stevens.”
Marcus approached with a steady gait as Whitely’s heart struck his ribs, as he imagined his father’s had. No wonder the old man’s convictions failed him, Whitely’s own fear was seasoning the air and his cries created a flavor that Marcus licked off his lips.
“You know, I’ve been thinking of something, sir,” Ted said.
“Dear friend, I’m glad. It’s never too late to try new tricks!”
“No more talking,” Marcus said. His teeth elongated to his chin, hanging like rusty nails over fresh snow. “Only death.”
“It’s just that you’ve done so much to gain the love of the Earl’s daughter,” Ted said. His words didn’t stop Marcus, but they did slow him. “You risked exposure to the Earl’s army and the attention of vampire hunters around the land.”
“I’d do anything to be with the Earl’s daughter. That includes destroying you and your entire village. Which I intend to do next.”
“But in truth, the Earl’s army is no match for your savagery. And I’m sure you’ve dealt with plenty of vampire hunters,” Ted continued, twisting his cap in his hands. “Though you were never in any physical danger while kidnapping the Earl’s daughter, this undertaking of yours carried a huge risk. It injured you gravely, in fact. The fragility of one’s ego and the torment of rejection. You are a braver man than me, I should say, because by pursuing Penelope’s love, you put your heart at stake.”
Whitely cried, “Say it with conviction, man!”
“You put your heart at stake to be with Penelope,” Ted repeated, in a clear, bristling voice. “According to the laws of vampirism, introducing a stake to a vampire’s heart is quite fatal. You should be dead, sir.”
Marcus mulled these words over carefully, then collapsed in a pile of dust, along with the other minions of the night. His sense overwhelmed, Whitely downed the rest of his flask and gave Ted a big, red kiss on the lips.
The Earl’s estate was jeweled and pearled, with lavish furniture and artwork that seemed to sully in the duo’s muddy presence.
The Earl sat upon his chair with his darling Penelope at his side. Her skin was white, though her cheeks blossomed like red amaryllises beneath the blue roses of her eyes. If she gave any indication of recognizing the men, it went unnoticed.
“My liege,” Whitely said. He took a knee. “We are honored to be in your presence.”
With his head nearly touching the floor, Whitely had expected some sort of response, but saw only perplexity in the Earl’s crumpled face. And with three words, the Earl wounded Whitely in a way a vampire couldn’t.
“And you are?”
“Most honorable Earl, we are the heroes who delivered your fair daughter from the grips of her captor, and by way killed the vile vampire known as Marcus Thinberry.”
“Ah.” The Earl punctuated the sound. “And you want…?”
“To be rewarded for our daring?”
The Earl promptly called for his Page, who sprang into the room with her red curls bobbing at her shoulders and scrolls shuffling in her arms. The Earl took one scroll and undid it, reading it aloud.
“The reward goes to whomever should bring me the head of Marcus Thinberry and deliver my daughter to me.”
“That’s right,” Whitely said.
“And my daughter returned to me alone.”
“And I see no head.”
Ted spoke up: “It turned to dust, you see.”
“Then my conditions haven’t been met. Let dust be your reward, for I am a man who lives by the letter of the law, and by what’s written, you have no right to my riches.”
Whitely and Ted retuned to the pub emptyhanded, grumbling about the awful ingrate who denied them their due compensation.
“It goes to show you, dear friend,” Whitely said. “If there’s such a thing that’s worse than a vampire, it’s a stickler for semantics!”
When they recounted their tale, the entire pub clung to Whitely’s every word, which proved to be its own reward. He even used the power of conversation to swindle drinks from the crowd. On a rainy evening, a man dressed in armor approached their table and threw a bag at them. Silvers spilled onto the table which seemed too pure and good to touch. When Whitely asked what this was all about, the man replied, “Vampires. Can the Marquess’s forces employ your services?” Whitely and Ted thought over the prospect for only a short while. Then they answered with conviction.
Steven Lombardi is an award-winning short fiction writer. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Air and Nothingness Press, Ghost Orchid Press, The Common Tongue, 365 Tomorrows, Ab Terra, Theme of Absence and elsewhere. He won The Dark Sire Award for Best Fiction in February 2021. You can find Steven on Twitter (@_sl_) and learn more about his work at: stevenlombardi.nyc.
Be sure to return to read the next short story, A BAD PLACE TO MEAT by Mary Sloat, later this evening. The celebration continues at 7pm (EST).