Friday, April 3, 2009

Excerpt from "Institute of the Dead"

The following is an excerpt from my short fantasy story "Institute of the Dead," which is one in a series of dark fantasy stories I began in the mid 1990s. It was published by Aphelion Webzine in 2005. These stories (a major unfinished project, I must admit) are set in an alternate reality version of 1820s England, and the main characters--Margot, her brother Roland, and her cousin Vincent--have strong psychic powers and are what you might call nineteenth-century ghost busters.

Margot opened the door at the end of the dark hallway, and the door creaked while she peeked in.

“—A temporal state between one life and the next, not really a part of either,” a schoolmaster was saying when she opened the door. Through the cracked-open door, Margot could see that this instructor was a gray, translucent man in garb from the 1790’s but oddly covered with a great length of chain draped from his shoulders. Margot opened the door slightly wider and crossed the threshold. The moment she entered this room, freezing cold overwhelmed her. The instructor turned to her and said, “Come in! Find yourself a seat. You have not missed much.” Margot drifted into the first empty seat she found, in the back row. She thought that if her body were actually here, she would see her breath create a mist.

The other students around her distracted Margot, so that she could scarcely listen to the lecture. To her left glowed a circle of light. To her right was a completely white woman; that is, completely white except for the bright dripping red that circled her throat; Margot judged by her curly powdered wig and tailored gown with wide lapels, that she must surely be from the French Revolution. Directly ahead of her Margot saw straight through a head because of the enormous hole in it, presumably from a bullet. The classroom was full of the strangest beings she had ever seen: a man with an axe stuck in the top of his head, a headless body with a carved pumpkin on its desk, a tall skeleton in a black evening suit, a woman with no hands, a man with disembodied hands grasping his neck, as if they had been cut off while attacking him. But a few of the ghosts resembled living people, as Margot supposed she did. She glanced down at her hands on her desktop to be sure, and she could not see through her hands, which were their customary pale flesh color. One of these ghosts wore Elizabethan garb, and when he saw her, he suddenly glowed bright green, but that only lasted for a few seconds before he lost interest and turned back to the schoolmaster.

“It is too late for me to warn you of the dangers of selfishness or foolishness or heartlessness during your life,” the ghostly instructor said while Margot finished looking around the room and at last settled her eyes on him. “You may even now be doing penance for having a stronger fondness for gold than for other souls.”

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