Copyright © Joe Austen - All Rights Reserved
Doctor William Opperros has the power to perceive and confront, in physical reality, the freakish and fantastical creatures which populate the perceptions of the emotionally disturbed and the mentally deranged. In penetrating the mysteries of a phantasmagorical dimension that exists within and beside an unsuspecting Victorian world, he encounters and interacts with the bizarre beings of that secret dimension in a series of surreal adventures which are recorded in the pages of The Opperros Archives.
— CHAPTER ONE—
Inmate Forty-Three paced frantically around a cramped and dingy cell whose only other occupant was a dwarfish hunchbacked woman knitting in a corner with an air of imperturbable self-satisfaction.
Turning his back on her, he grasped the bars of the cell window and gazed through the grimy glass into the fog-bound street below, where steaming horses pulled lumbering carts over clattering cobbles and bustling crowds swirled and eddied in turbulent waves against the sooty walls of the asylum, as indifferent as the sea to the sufferings of the lost souls incarcerated in the grim edifice which cast its gloomy shadow over them. The clip clop of the horses’ hoofs in the street below was echoed inside the cell by the click clack of the needles of the old woman knitting in the corner. Engulfed in a wave of sudden panic, he furiously shook the window bars with an impotent rage whose thwarted force seemed merely to be mocked by the tiny tremble in the metal rods which sent a spider scurrying across the vibrating threads of its web.
Behind him he heard the click clack of the knitting needles drawing nearer and nearer as the old woman advanced towards him. As her withered fingers deftly flicked the flashing needles to and fro, a third hand shot out from underneath her shawl, snatched the spider from its trembling web and popped it in her mouth. With grotesque gusto she chomped her prey into a bloody mush, swallowed it, licked her toothless, glistening gums and chortled gleefully. Then, to the constant clacking of her needles, she walked up the sweaty wall of the cell and across the dripping ceiling, in whose centre she settled like a hooded crow squatting on its nest.
Inmate Forty-Three gazed at her in morbid fascination. Although she filled his heart with horror and revulsion, the hideous hag hanging upside down from the ceiling of his cell and leering at him with obscene intimacy was the single constant and familiar feature in a life of unbearable vacuity and puzzlement. The central secret of his tormented life was that of his identity. He knew nothing of his life or of his past. He did not even know his name.
But he knew the name of the old crone on the ceiling. It was Nanny Mulch. Because she never spoke, the means by which he knew her name remained a mystery. But he knew she had the power to read his mind and to reveal her mind to him, when doing so would suit her evil purposes.
She was with him always. Her baleful presence in the cell was so pervasive that all other thoughts were driven from his mind, dying at the moment of their birth. If he struggled to recall some detail of his past, some tiny clue to his identity, then Nanny Mulch would pounce upon the timorous emerging notion as if it were a scurrying spider, pop it into the darkness of her gummy maw and masticate it to oblivion.
And yet, for all of her malevolent vigilance, his mind was filled today with one consuming thought that Nanny Mulch had not snuffed out. It was this very thought that filled his heart with dread and drove him to rattle the bars of his cell window in helpless panic. For his mind was consumed with the terrible certainty that something unspeakably dreadful would happen to him this very day. He did not know exactly what this dreadful thing would be, or the precise moment at which it would occur. But he knew for certain that it would occur today and would be horrific beyond imagining.
As panic mounted within him, the click clack of Nanny Mulch’s knitting needles sounded like the ticking of a clock marking the remorseless march of the seconds whose passing brought his awful fate nearer and nearer to its dread fulfilment. As the day advanced with agonising slowness and darkness descended like a shroud, he paced his cell compulsively, with the sounds of his footsteps, the pounding of his heart and the clicking of the needles beating together in a unified rhythm that seemed to mark and measure his impending doom.
Suddenly the clicking needles ceased. He stopped in mid-stride. His heart skipped a beat.
In the awful silence that followed, he heard the distant grinding of a key turning in a lock. A metal door scraped open and there came from far away, the sounds of marching feet advancing down an echoing corridor and the rhythmic rattling of a wheeled contraption. The reverberating sounds grew louder and louder as they drew ever nearer to his cell. With startling suddenness they stopped, a key turned in a lock and the door of his cell creaked open. There entered a tall, impeccably tailored man of languid bearing, holding before him a lamp that cast a flickering light upon his dark and saturnine countenance. He was followed into the cell by four orderlies wearing black caps and surgical masks of an equally funereal hue. The last of the orderlies to enter the cell pushed before him a wheeled trolley to which were attached thick leather straps and metal manacles.
Upon a brief nod from the tall gloomy man, the orderlies seized hold of Inmate Forty-Three and heaved him on to the trolley, struggling and squirming violently. When he attempted to roar his fury and his terror, a thick leather gag was forced into his open mouth. As he lashed back at his attackers, he was stunned by a violent blow to the head. A moment later he was jerked back into agonising consciousness as his left leg snapped under the ferocity with which he was manacled to the trolley and brutally bound with strong leather straps.
Throughout this swift and ruthless process, Nanny Mulch darted nimbly among the orderlies, cackling gleefully, and triumphantly brandishing her knitting needles in two hands as two additional hands flicked like snake-tongues from underneath her shawl to check the severity of the restraints which bound the helpless victim to the trolley. Then, with a jubilant chuckle, she leapt upon his chest and squatted there to gaze at him with hooded eyes, like a complacent cat settled before a mouse-hole.
He returned her stare with hatred and revulsion, then turned his eyes towards the masked orderlies as they savagely fixed the last of his restraints. But neither the orderlies nor their lugubrious master acknowledged in the slightest the existence of the hideous creature perched upon his chest, leering at him with such unbearable self-satisfaction.
They could not see her. No-one could see her but him. No-one.
As the trolley was trundled from the cell and along the echoing corridor, Nanny Mulch remained perched upon his chest, her malevolent eyes glittering in the moving lamplight as she clicked her knitting needles in time to the rattle of the trolley wheels and the marching footsteps of the orderlies. With the lugubrious solemnity of an undertaker, the tall gloomy man preceded the trolley along the labyrinthine corridors until they arrived at a massive metal door.
Drawing its bolts, he swung the door wide open and gestured to the orderlies to push the trolley into the great chamber beyond. They entered a vast circular room whose walls were lined with rising tiers of wooden benches on which were seated a great host of men whose murmuring voices subsided into silence as they observed the arrival of the trolley and
its helpless occupant. As he was wheeled around the circular area in the centre of the room, the better to display him to the curious observers, Inmate Forty-Three gazed with mounting panic at the revolving serried ranks of gawping faces peering down at him in morbid fascination.
From her perch upon his chest, Nanny Mulch waved and gestured to the murmuring multitude like a gladiator acknowledging the tributes of the many-headed in the Roman Colosseum. But the eyes of all were fixed on him. No-one looked at Nanny Mulch, for no-one could see her. No-one but him.
After three circumnavigations of the room, the trolley came to a stop at last beside the door of entry. One of the masked orderlies stood in attendance at the head of the trolley as the other three advanced towards a great marble table in the centre of the room, upon which there stood a large rosewood box. The first orderly opened the box, revealing inside, a dark green velvet lining upon which was arrayed a glittering collection of surgical instruments. With unhurried care he began to remove the instruments one by one and pass them to the other two orderlies, who laid them with delicate precision upon the gleaming marble table.
As the orderlies attended to their business with quiet efficiency, the tall lugubrious man gave a soft cough whose effect was to produce an instantaneous silence among the murmuring spectators, all of whom turned their eyes upon him.
“Gentlemen,” he said, in a quiet voice resonant with understated authority, “the case we have before us today is one which you may consider to be of singular significance.”
For a moment, all eyes swivelled towards the figure strapped upon the trolley and then swung back towards the speaker.
“Allow me to bring to your attention, if I may, the two features of this case which are deserving of particular consideration. The first of these features is the total loss of memory experienced by this patient. He has no awareness of where he came from or who he is. He has no sense of his age or knowledge of his name, nor the slightest intimation of his life to date, its history or its antecedents.”
The speaker moved towards Inmate Forty-Three and gazed deeply into his eyes as if searching within them for the tiniest spark of self-awareness. From her perch upon her helpless victim’s chest, Nanny Mulch gave the speaker a grotesque wink of roguish flirtatiousness and smacked her gums in a resounding simulated kiss. His saturnine features remained unmoved as he continued to gaze into the eyes of the subject pinioned on the trolley below him. Then, with a regretful shake of the head, he turned to address his listeners once again.
“There is nothing in his eyes, except, perhaps, for paralysing terror.” With a hesitantly deferential gesture, one of his listeners raised a hand.
“Doctor Lonopius, can you tell us what distinguishes this particular case of total amnesia from many other similar cases in this asylum?”
Lonopius paused for a moment, as if slightly embarrassed by the reply he must give.
“The distinguishing feature of this particular case is the cause of that amnesia, which is ascribed by the subject himself to the malevolent influence of a creature whom he designates as …..Nanny Mulch.” A ripple of laughter echoed around the chamber. It was difficult to know whether it was caused by the ludicrous name, the embarrassment with which the speaker enunciated it, or the violated expectation of his listeners that a profound medical secret was about to be revealed to them.
Whatever the cause of the laughter, it was received with extreme gratification by Nanny Mulch herself, who stood erect upon the chest of Inmate Forty- Three, bowed with mock obsequiousness to her audience and treated them all to another reverberating gum-smacking kiss.
Doctor Lonopius laid his hand upon his subject’s sweat-soaked brow.
“Nanny Mulch is here, gentlemen, encased within this tortured cranium.
She has no substance beyond its compass nor palpable presence in the physical world.”
The object of this observation shook her head vigorously from side to side and in a gesture of hyperbolic irony, pointed to herself with all four hands as if to demonstrate to all and sundry the tangible proof of the speaker ’s error.
“And yet this creature of the mind exerts such power upon our tortured and tormented subject that his brain is paralysed to stupefaction by her predatory presence. He believes that she devours his thoughts as a spider devours a fly, a rat devours a spider and a cat devours a rat.” As Doctor Lonopius’s simile ascended through the food chain, Nanny Mulch’s eyes rolled in her head and her tongue slithered around her gums in the simulated ecstasy of a glutton presented with a sumptuous feast.
“It is the phenomenal vividness and omnipotent power exerted by this creature of the mind upon our crazed, deluded and demented subject that gives such singular significance to his case and which necessitates the drastic measures we must take to rectify his mental aberrations.”
Upon these words, a black-masked orderly advanced towards the trolley, carrying a tray containing barber’s instruments and a porcelain bowl in which he swirled a shaving brush that caused the suds within to froth and bubble vigorously. He then applied the creamy foam in liberal quantities to the close-cropped cranium of the subject strapped upon the trolley. This process so delighted Nanny Mulch that she playfully swirled her knitting needles in the bowl of suds with one hand while vigorously applying her fifteen other digits to massaging shaving lather into the soaked and softening stubble on the head of the pinioned victim, who strained to hear, above the sounds of sloshing suds and squelching fingers, the measured and remorseless tones of the absolute arbiter of his
“Despite the non-physical nature of the tormentor of our subject, physical methods alone will guarantee her permanent elimination. If we cannot banish her from his mind, we must remove her from his brain.” As these words were spoken, the orderly replaced the shaving bowl upon the tray and picked up an open razor which he deftly stroked against a leather strop. Once satisfied as to the razor ’s sharpness, he applied it to his subject’s sud-soaked skull and shaved the sodden stubble with long slow strokes.
Above the echoing rasping of the razor, the fatal sentence was pronounced.
“I will, accordingly, now open up the subject’s skull and then remove that section of his brain which is the local habitation of his merciless tormentor.”
The horror of this ghastly pronouncement was exacerbated for its victim by the exuberant antics of Nanny Mulch, who danced a jubilant jig upon his chest while pointing with vigorous relish, first at herself and then at his skull, to vividly drive home the stark alternatives of hideous torment or
Finishing the final stroke of the razor, the orderly wiped clean a skull now smooth and hairless, before returning to his post beside the marble operating table upon which the glittering array of surgical instruments was perfectly disposed.
Unable to contain her glee a moment longer, Nanny Mulch sprang upon the gleaming surface of the marble table and placed her knitting needles in its centre like crossed swords, around which she proceeded to dance a nimble highland fling, enlivened by a dervish-like display of phenomenal four-armed flexibility, punctuated by ear-piercing shrieks of triumphant exultation.
None of this was seen or heard by the assembled company, but only by the man who gazed in dread upon the slab-like table on which was manifest that horror beyond imagining he knew would come to him this
“Bring him to the operating table.”
The command was given to the black-masked orderly attending to the trolley, but to the bewilderment of its imprisoned occupant, the trolley suddenly shot backwards through the entrance door and crashed into the corridor behind. Slamming the door shut and ramming home its triple bolts, the orderly raced down the corridor with the trolley careering crazily ahead of him as the thundering of fists on the barred door behind them grew fainter and fainter in the receding distance.
As they hurtled at breakneck speed through twisting labyrinthine corridors, it seemed to the bewildered figure on the trolley that the tumbling thoughts inside his battered and befuddled head were swirling away from him into a vortex of oblivion. But then the lurching, spinning motions came to a stunning stop as the trolley crashed into a massive wooden door. The orderly drew back its bolts and threw the door wide open, revealing beyond, a flight of stone stairs winding down to a floor below.
For a moment he considered the stairs and then the helpless figure on the trolley, as if torn between two bitter choices. Then, in an instant he was gone, leaping down the stairs and abandoning his charge to his uncertain fate and fevered imaginings.
A dread silence followed, and then, from far below, there came a mighty crashing sound. Before its reverberating echoes died, another massive crash was heard and then another and another. What did the rhythmic pounding signify? The answer came a moment later. A battering ram! The orderly was smashing down a door!
As the crashing of the battering ram echoed around the corridors like a heartbeat pounding in a fevered brain, Inmate Forty-Three’s eyes widened in horror as they beheld, emerging from the shadows and scurrying towards him, the dreaded figure of Nanny Mulch. He tried to call the orderly for help, but the gag in his mouth stifled his slightest whimper. He struggled frantically against his fierce restraints, but they bound him as tightly as a tourniquet.
Nanny Mulch advanced towards him, her eyes dancing with malicious glee. In an elaborate pantomime of feigned caution, she looked around her with exaggerated vigilance, as if fearfully searching for the orderly, and then, as if possessed of a sudden intuition, she put her hand to her ear and listened intently to the distant crashing sounds. A knowing leer spread across her countenance as if to suggest that she had suddenly realised that the orderly could not be close at hand, as he was so
obviously and so audibly engaged elsewhere.
Nanny Mulch advanced towards the trolley with agonising slowness, thumping her feet upon the floor in mocking synchronisation with the distant pounding sounds, as if to emphasise with every step, the time she had at her disposal to inflict upon her helpless victim, whatever horrors she might choose. In each of her four wrinkled hands was grasped a flashing surgical instrument, which she brandished with rhythmical and delicate precision, as if in parody of an oriental ritual dance performed before the taking of a human sacrifice.
She continued her gruesome dance around the trolley, pausing beside her victim’s head, above which she whirled the surgical blades with blinding speed, whisking them so close to his skull that he could feel the wind of their spinning passage upon his sweat-streaked shaven pate.
As these whimsical niceties mounted to a frenetic crescendo, Nanny Mulch leapt with nimble vigour onto the chest of her victim and stood there for a moment in frozen immobility, the four gleaming blades held high above her, poised to plunge into the helpless victim whose agony was intensified beyond endurance in that final moment of stillness and silence.
There was silence!
The pounding had stopped!
Then the silence was shattered by a dreadful shriek from Nanny Mulch as she flew into the air and crashed to the stone-flagged floor with a resounding clatter that sent the instruments flying from her hands and slithering across the flagstones.
As she scrambled to her feet, the black-masked orderly sprang towards her, seized her by the throat and shook her like a rat. She gave a strangulated screech, twitched convulsively, then suddenly went limp, her four arms dangling like a puppet whose strings were severed. On hearing the far sounds of running feet and voices raised in anger, the orderly threw her into the shadows with a gesture of contemptuous indifference and hastened towards the trolley.
Inmate Forty-Three gazed at the spectacle in utter bewilderment, unable to believe his eyes, which remained fixated on the shadows into which his nemesis had been consigned. Nothing but darkness and silence. Was she gone? Was he rid of her?
He was shaken from his stupefaction by the agonising pains that shot along his arms and legs as the orderly released him from his bonds. As the gag was taken from his mouth, he gasped in astonishment.
“You could see her! You could see her too!”
“Yes. I could see her.”
As the angry shouts and thundering feet drew ever nearer, the orderly helped him to his feet. He fell to the floor with an involuntary groan of pain and lay there helpless, unable to move a muscle. His rescuer picked him up, heaved him over his shoulder, rapidly descended the winding stairs and crashed through a burst and battered door. As he stumbled into the fog-wreathed street beyond, the angry shouts of his pursuers echoed loudly in the stairwell behind him.
He barely had time to stumble towards a waiting horse and carriage and bundle his half-conscious charge inside before his pursuers came tumbling through the shattered door and raced towards him. He leapt into the carriage, cracked the reins, and the horse was off in an instant, rattling down the cobbled lane, watched in impotent rage by Doctor Lonopius and his thwarted audience.
As they clattered through the echoing streets, Inmate Forty-Three raised his head and attempted to gain some sense of his location. As dim-lit buildings flew past him in the darkness, he had no way of taking his bearings until he heard in the distance, the muffled sound of a foghorn and glimpsed through a gap in the swirling mists, the far-off glimmer of lights dancing upon dark waters. Strangely comforted by the sight of the water and the sound of the foghorn, he dared for a moment to hope that he might be speeding towards sanctuary and safety, and with that fragile consolation, closed his eyes and sank into a dreamless slumber.
The rattling carriage hastened to a gloomy river wharf at which a little sailing ship was moored. Pulling the carriage to a clattering halt, the orderly leapt to the ground, heaved his semi-conscious passenger over his shoulder and carried him below decks to lay him on a bunk as gently as he would a drowsy child. Forcing his eyes open, Inmate Forty-Three attempted to offer a few broken words of thanks to the mysterious rescuer gazing down at him with grave and thoughtful eyes. But the mumbled words died on his lips as his leaden eyelids began to droop once more.
With his last waking glance he saw the orderly take off his cap to release a great shock of thick white hair, and then remove his mask, uncovering a face more careworn, lined and burdened by the passing of the years than the force and vigour of his rescuer’s actions had led their beneficiary to believe would lie beneath the mask. Secure in the belief that his charge was safe from harm at last, the orderly ascended to the upper deck and cast off with swift efficiency.
But as the vessel sailed into the mist, a furiously racing six-limbed creature came galloping out of the darkness and leapt towards it with lupine agility and force. The orderly was so intent upon steering the little ship through the fog that he barely heard the splash behind him as Nanny Mulch plunged into the churning wake of the vessel and swam towards it with vigorous multi-limbed dexterity. Before the swirling currents of the river could take the ship beyond her reach, she sank her talons deep into its salt-caked timbers and stuck like a hideous excrescence to its barnacle-encrusted hull. She clung to it with deeper driven claws as the waters grew wider and swifter. Indifferent to the battering of the waves and the buffeting of the winds, she still held fast to the tossing vessel as the distant lights of London were lost to view and the little ship breasted the stormy waters of the sea.
Inmate Forty-Three thrashed around his bunk more turbulently than the vessel tossed upon the sea, his body wracked by searing pains and his brain tormented by chaotic nightmares in which he was strapped to the deck of a ship which was swept remorselessly by swirling waters through labyrinthine corridors of stone towards some terrible impalpable doom.
On the wind-swept deck above him, with no seeming need of compass or of stars to guide the way, the orderly steered the ship with the sureness of touch and singleness of purpose of one absolutely certain of his course. He held her steady through the turbulent seas until, at last, the clouds were torn from the moon and a beam of light fell upon a fog-wreathed island so faint and distant that it seemed as insubstantial as the mists in which it was enshrouded.
As the ship sped towards the island, the orderly flashed a signal light and an answering light blinked back in almost instantaneous response. With a keen eye and sure hand, he steered the vessel through the jagged rocks which thrust up from the crashing waves like the pikes of underwater warriors determined to smash the hull of any ship which dared invade their island fortress.
Weaving through the last few jutting rocks, the ship entered the still waters of a great cavern through which it sailed towards a towering cliff at whose base there stood a wooden jetty. Waiting upon it was a shrivelled little man waving a lantern whose glittering reflection sparkled on the inky waters. Before the dancing lights revealed her presence, Nanny Mulch retracted her talons from the ship’s hull, slipped silently into the murky waters and swam with the swiftness of a six-limbed frog towards the distant rocks, into which she hastily scurried and was instantly concealed.
From her hidden point of vantage, she observed intently as the ship reached the jetty and the orderly stepped ashore, carrying his unconscious passenger over his shoulder. With lantern held aloft, the little man trotted ahead of the orderly and his slumbering charge as they passed like flickering fireflies along the ascending cliff path. At the summit of the cliff, the little man raised his face to the moon, gave vent to a piercing howl and paused as if frozen until there came from far away the answering howl of some unknown creature. He waved his lantern in reply and then set off in the direction of the distant cry.
The unearthly wail roused the insensible Forty-Three to a brief moment of consciousness in which he had the perception of being carried through darkness towards a distant howling sound. He gazed around him in a desperate effort to gain some sense of his bearings, but all he could see was the shadowy path along which he was being carried. Suddenly there was a break in the clouds and a beam of moonlight fell upon the dreaded figure of Nanny Mulch, scuttling secretly and silently along the path behind him, her gimlet eyes glittering in the moonlight as she waved to him with twenty twinkling digits in a sinister gesture of roguish complicity, as if to confirm their secret mutual knowledge that no matter what happened, he would never be rid of her.
He gave vent to an involuntary groan of anguish, lapsed into unconsciousness, and knew no more.