I have enjoyed the idea of stories about hell ever since one of my writing instructors asked me to consider the neighbours from hell as if they were literally from hell.
Over time I generated several stories on this theme.
Following on from the Book Planning article recently: https://magic-phil.co.uk/2018/02/11/book-planning-pt-2/. In this I consider James who has escaped Hell (but possibly not for very long).
In this one a tormentor from the flame regions tries to find himself a new employee.
“Ah Lawrence, dear, dear Lawrence, I see that you have put in a request for retirement, you know how I get upset about such things”
“But Your Eminence I have served you faithfully for longer than any of your previous servants, surely I have earned it?”
“Oh dear, this concept of having earned something Lawrence, how very demanding of you. I’m afraid that I may have to provide myself with a little entertainment at your expense.”
“Ah, that is, I apologise for not having explained myself properly Your Eminence. What I meant to say was that I have found an excellent replacement servant.”
“Now you have given this some thought Lawrence haven’t you? It isn’t just the first name that happened to turn up in ‘The Book of the Damned’ is it?”
“Err, well, no Your Eminence.”
“Oh Lawrence don’t lie to me, I’m very good at detecting it you know.”
“Well, I was flicking through ‘The Book’ this afternoon and discovered a possible candidate who lives just next door.”
“One hundred percent for convenience Lawrence but is he as talented as you are? I’m not sure that I need another apprentice.”
“But think of the advantages Your Eminence, the bending of a new recruit to your will, the fresh viewpoint, the different ideas.”
“Very well Lawrence you’ve made your point, let’s have a look at him shall we. Oh and Lawrence.”
“Yes Your Eminence.”
“Here’s a set of painful mouth ulcers to repay your feeble deception attempts. I think I’d rather like to watch you eating some nice hot chips – and don’t stint on the vinegar.”
* * *
“David, DAVID, get up now and be swift about it there’s a good man.”
The voice sounded like it came from inside my head. I knew that I was still asleep but without thinking I was up, out of bed and padding down the stairs, still dressed in my pyjamas. I seemed compelled to head towards the source of that voice. Down the street; the house adjacent to mine; through the gate and the front door, which were hanging, open as if in readiness for me.
* * *
“Lawrence? Could you just sort out the business with the wife now? That would be lovely. Ah David how nice for you to finally meet me.”
I had a feeling that there was something very wrong with that sentence. There was also something wrong with being fast asleep but with your eyes wide open.
“Lawrence, come and look at him would you?”
“Yes Your Eminence”
“This would be David. I see from his entry in The Book of the Damned that he would be forty six. So far he is a man largely without drive or ambition, are you sure that he’s the right sort to replace you? It’ll be the hot bath for you if you’re wrong.”
“No, no, I’m sure” Lawrence sounded anxious to please.
“As long as you’re not putting your wishes above mine, such as sneakily nominating a replacement servant so that you can take it easy you know that would just make me annoyed.”
Lawrence sighed “With respect your holiness; everything makes you annoyed.”
“I’m sorry Lawrence but that’s it; off to the hot bath and don’t come back till you’ve mended your ways.”
“No, no, please; I didn’t mean it.” Lawrence’s voice was edged with fear.
“Oh we’re going to try overacting are we? Excellent Lawrence; I do love a spot of melodrama; do go on.”
“I was going to beg for my life Eminence.”
“Beg for it Lawrence? Beg for it? Have you learned nothing in the three hundred odd years you have served me?”
“That life to which you would cling so tenaciously is my invention. It is a shadow of consciousness sufficient to enable you to appreciate the suffering which I can provide, nothing more. Oh, and to provide me with a fine entertainment I might add. Now off to the baths there’s a good man.”
“But, but…” Lawrence had begun to babble.
“Oh dear Lawrence; a desperately slow learner aren’t we? (I wonder why I’ve never encountered that before.) Should I take that life away from you then? You could call it a last favour as a long-time companion.”
“No, thank you Eminence; I’ve grown rather attached to it.”
“Well; I’m sure that you know best. Oh and Lawrence.”
“Yes Your Eminence.” Lawrence responded with a hopeful note to his voice.
“Wake him up before you go; there’s a good man.”
“Eminence” Lawrence’s voice fell to a hopeless whisper.
* * *
I had been listening to the whole conversation from the depths of a dream. I was insulated from it and distant, but now as Lawrence touched me an incredible pain brought me instantly awake and to my knees in one moment. As I gasped Lawrence took one last reproachful look at me and then departed.
“Ah, David, delighted, delighted, now I am really at a loss I really am. My old slave seems to think that you will be an adequate replacement for him but you seem really lack-lustre to me, it is really bemusing.”
I was still dazed by the pain and unsure what I was supposed to say next.
“Perhaps you might explain what qualities you possess that would make you interesting. You see I would ask Lawrence but it would be rather difficult right now, he may not have time to explain; in between the screaming that is.”
I continued to stare at him mute with disbelief; it seemed like mere seconds before I had been resting in a comfortable bed.
* * *
“I’ll forgive you the silence this far David because you are new; but I warn you don’t stretch my patience any further. What is it about you that makes you so useful? Hmm?”
I remembered the fear in Lawrence’s voice when he had been told to go for a ‘hot bath’. “I’m sorry, I really don’t understand; this is really a strange kind of dream” I blurted out without thinking.
“Oh this is so annoying; fortunately I had prepared a demonstration, I always find them so useful in illustrating the realities as it were.”
“A demonstration?” I could feel my voice quaver a little; what did he mean by a demonstration?
“Yes David it’s time we had our relationship on the proper footing which it will be I have no doubt after you have returned home.”
* * *
Before the sound of “home” had properly died, I found myself back in my bedroom, still kneeling. Looking into the staring eyes of my wife; fixed now in death, around her throat a set of bruises, causing it to be swelled and purple.
I stared in disbelief, Deirdre, my companion now for twenty years. It took me some time to understand that this was real. As I knelt there in shock, the realisation dawned – he had said that there would be a “demonstration.” He had done this – he had murdered my wife.
I looked around for a weapon and saw an ugly brass table lamp – something Deirdre’s mother had given us and I had been too polite to throw out. I grabbed it, pulling the cable from the wall socket and set off down the stairs.
* * *
“Back so soon David? How admirable, how quickly you are facing up to the realities. So much faster than Lawrence did; there really is hope for you.”
“She’s dead, she’s b b b bloody dead and you killed her” I heard myself yell.
“Well of course I did at least indirectly. Of course it was your actual hands that committed the evil deed so to speak but yes I was the guiding intelligence behind it.”
I looked down and saw that my hands were red and trembling as if from some great exertion. The muscles were aching badly –how could this could be, had I killed her?
“Of course it was me that gave her that wretched life in the first place. I certainly think I have the right to take it away. If I get a bit of enjoyment watching her struggle and finally despair as the last gasp chokes from her then I think that is only my due don’t you”
“You bastard, you evil, crazy, mean-minded, bastard” I was desperate now.
“David; I don’t think that’s wise. Whilst the words are inevitably accurate it’s traditional to keep up a modicum of front about these things. Put down the table-lamp. You can’t do anything with it you know.”
At that instant, my arm started to spasm and I rapidly dropped the brass lamp “Aaah, ah, ah, shit, damn, it electrocuted me. How could it do that? It wasn’t even plugged in.”
“Because I commanded it to of course; when I say ‘Lord’ I mean ‘Lord of Darkness’ and all that charming Gothic nonsense.
“You mean that you’re The…Devil?” I asked gaping in disbelief.
“Well if you must use such a demeaning term, I prefer to think of myself as ‘The Prince of Evil’ or something similar but each to his own.”
“You’re insane; you know that, you can’t possibly be The Devil. I mean The Devil doesn’t exist.”
“You’ll have plenty of opportunity to verify my existence over the millennia I will force you to serve me. This really is most tiresome; I feel that I’ve given you quite enough time to knuckle down. Tell me why you are useful to me; or shall we go for a tour? I could show you some of the less well-publicised elements of my realm, hmm?
I was distracted from the menace of his last sentence. My mind filled with the image of Deirdre lying dead “I loved her; I really loved her; what will I do now?”
“Well of course you think that you loved her. That was all part of the plan to increase your wretchedness when she finally gave up the ghost. It really is most gratifying that it has worked out so well. Now if you don’t mind your qualifications?”
“M-my qualifications? I-I don’t know about qualifications; I’m just a civil servant.” I could feel my sanity wrestling away from me.
“Oh I think it unlikely to be anything about your job. I’m not interested that you have served 26 years with the Inland Revenue. Charming though that cliché would be.”
“I c-can’t understand what you mean” my mind felt like it was drowning.
“Let me put it simply for you shall I? You have mere moments to explain to me in what new and diverting ways you can increase the misery of the world or you can join my previous employee in a rather warm bath.”
“I? Increase the misery of the world?” I knew now that it was insanity; I must be delusional.
“Well I’m sure that you do David; merely by breathing. You really are quite dull you know; but that is not quite on the scale that I imagined. I do so love the petty annoyances; they do make the time pass so delightfully swiftly.”
“Petty annoyances?” I was repeating everything he said; by now reduced to parrotry.
“I take it all back David; you really are so incredibly slow I am amazed that anything makes it through that dense artefact you call a skull. An example I think, just to make things easier. Last week I believe was your dear departed wife’s birthday?”
“Deirdre; oh my God; Deirdre” tears fell so thickly now my eyes felt like open sores.
“Yes, as you so eloquently put it, Deirdre. You booked a table at eight and promised to be home on time. Unfortunately, your boss gave you a grilling about use of the photocopier in work time. This delay caused you to miss the bus and the next bus of course didn’t turn up. You decided to walk but a sudden downpour turned that into more of a frantic run didn’t it?”
“Yes, how …?”
“So that by the time you arrived home soaking wet; stressed, tired and an hour late Deidre was slightly less than pleased to see you. Of course you did try the restaurant but due to some mishap they had failed to take your reservation. Deirdre’s birthday turned out to be a Chinese takeaway and she didn’t talk to you for three days! It’s all so delightful when it works so well; rather like poetry really.”
“You did all that?” I felt as defeated as the look in Lawrence’s eyes when he departed for the ‘warm bath’.
“Oh not personally of course; I did have Lawrence; He was really very good you know. But then I am hopeful that you can do better.”
“Better?” What did he imagine I could do?
“Well keep the gears oiled, the wheels rolling; continue to make life miserable for people.”
“Oh purely for my entertainment of course; I’m stuck in this realm for all eternity so I definitely do not wish to see anyone enjoying their time here.”
“But surely when the time comes.”
“You die? Oh purely an artefact David I can assure you. You see you were never living in the first place. Life is merely that essence that I have caused all the residents of my kingdom to be addicted to; to treasure; to give everything for. But in fact it is completely worthless.”
“Oh yes, you see you can’t cease to exist, you have been imprisoned here for all eternity with me; every miserable one of you. The ‘Day of Judgement’ – over hyped as it has been, has, actually occurred. This place you call ‘home’, ‘Earth’ and in fact this entire Universe is the home of darkness and of suffering for all eternity.”
“But then where do you go…?”
“After you die? Well you see it’s a bit of a sleight of hand. I whip you out of one rotting mound of flesh and cause you to be born memory erased somewhere else equally miserable; equally without hope.”
“I don’t see the point…”
“Of course if I can make you a little uglier; maybe give your mother postnatal depression so that she can’t stand you. Perhaps I’ll settle for something more minor like a severe nappy rash or that you develop debilitating asthma at a young age. It’s all rather gratifying once you know how it works.”
“So this is purgatory?” (I remembered something about this from a programme on television; unfortunately, I hadn’t given it much attention.)
“Well not, as such, no; you see as I understand it the definition of purgatory is that eventually you may escape it. You, I’m afraid have no hope of escape, ever. So now” (his voice took on a truly sinister edge) “why are you of value to me David?”
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