I won’t be here on Friday to update as normal, so here is this week’s update a few days early. I wrote it as a submission for a Cthulhu mythos themed anthology concerning Richard Upton Pickman and, as far as I know, I am okay to repost it here.
The following short story contains material some people may find disturbing/distressing. I apologise in advance if you are one of those people.
The painting unnerved him and he did not know why.
It wasn’t the colours, the Bosch and the Dali on either side of it were both darker and brighter.
It wasn’t the subject, he had seen many variations on a feast of excess in his travels.
It wasn’t even the provenance, because he didn’t know it.
There was just an air about it that unsettled him, an eerie realism that somehow crept under his skin.
At 6’2” and possessed of an athlete’s body, Martin Sherringham found few things truly disquieting, but he was beginning to wonder if he had made a mistake with his latest acquisition.
He had first seen it at an auction last year. The auction house was somewhere he visited often on his days off work and he had found many a surprising thing there. His wife’s wedding ring had been won on a whim, as had the mirror hanging in their bedroom.
It had caught his eye in passing and he had stopped to have a closer look.
Situated between two more contemporary paintings, it was the carved frame that had drawn him to it. Rather than ornate decoration and gold leaf, a simple geometric pattern had been carved into the stained wood. Although composed almost entirely of straight lines, it drew the eye towards the canvas like a spiral would.
The canvas itself was covered in dark, cracked oils and depicted a long stone table covered in trays of meat. On the floor around the table, people lay together, their faces contorted with pleasure, as a fire burned in a great, stone fireplace. In a doorway, half-hidden in the shadow cast by the stone frame, a lone figure watched.
He had spent five minutes absorbing every detail of the painting before leaving that day.
He had returned the next day, and the day after that. He had not been able to say why he kept visiting it, only that he felt a strange sense of ownership. When it had finally come up at auction, he had bid for it and won.
It was then that the problems started.
The prior owner’s estate began contesting the auction, insisting they had never agreed to sell the piece. A lengthy discussion had begun that ended only when the auction house’s legal team got involved.
It was only then that it was discovered the piece had no name or provenance attached to it. No-one could tell Martin who had previously owned the painting, or where it had come from. The only clue to the painter was a signature in the bottom right corner; R.U.P.
A search of the relevant sources returned a few tentative names matching the age of the canvas and the oils but no-one knew for certain who the painter was.
By this point, Martin cared little for the provenance. The painting began to fill his every waking thought and he took to visiting it in the auction house’s holding room. Eventually, it was cleared for release and he had taken possession of the painting last week.
He had formally received it only hours earlier. For the past week, it had been subjected to a variety of tests and minor restorations. The process had been finished with a small brass plaque inscribed with ‘The Feast by R.U.P.’ that was affixed squarely in the centre of the frame at the bottom.
It was the plaque that he had been staring at for the past ten minutes. Something about its regular lines and ordered, perpendicular corners seemed to clash with the pattern on the frame. The plaque seemed alien and unwanted, as if it were somehow wrong.
He sipped absently at the drink in his hand and grimaced as the warm wine hit his tongue. It left a cloying aftertaste as he swallowed and he put the glass down to carefully lower the veil back over the painting. The thin fabric seemed to break whatever connection he felt to the work and he blinked slowly, as if waking from a day-dream.
The sounds of the house around him gradually filtered through his consciousness and he realised how hot he felt. He picked the wine up and gave it a cautious sip.
It was refreshingly cool and the crisp taste enervated him. He frowned slightly at it as he remembered what it had tasted like only moments before and then shook his head, dismissing the thought.
“Martin!” A voice called from within the house and he smiled, striding swiftly towards the doorway. He paused as he reached the threshold, one finger on the light-switch. Without knowing why, he glanced backwards, towards the painting.
For a single heartbeat, he could hear the sounds of the feast and see the light of the fire, muted by the veil but carrying through the gallery nonetheless.
As quickly as the sounds and light came, they went and he frowned in puzzlement before the voice called him again.
“Coming!” He replied, switching off the light and closing the door behind him.
The evening passed in a blur.
He ate, he drank, he relaxed and he made love to his wife.
Simone, for her part, noticed nothing different about her husband and contentedly fell asleep in his arms.
It was as he lay in their bed, Simone pressed against his chest, that Martin began to think once more about the painting.
Obsession was nothing new to him. It was one of the reasons he was so good at what he did. But this was new, this was something unfamiliar. Whereas usually his obsession was a compulsion, a clinical need for something, this was more of a desire. He did not need to think of the painting, he wanted to think of it.
As he closed his eyes, picturing ‘The Feast’ once more, he felt a fiery warmth brush his skin and heard, just for a moment, a gasp of pleasure.
Martin Sherringham dreamed.
He dreamed he stood at the top of a vast staircase leading down into the darkness.
A wide stone step rested beneath his feet and a cool wind pressed against him, as if trying to push his naked body down the stairs in front of him. His nudity surprised him, he could not recall the last time he had dreamt he was naked, but he accepted it. The carvings along the edge of the stone step were both familiar and strange to him at the same time, as if he had only a faint memory of them.
The wind carried voices with it, fragments of whispered conversation that filled his ears and teased him with half-heard secrets. He blocked them out and began to walk carefully downwards, his feet testing each step for solidity and balance.
He walked for what seemed to be days, growing hungrier and thirstier with each step, until he reached a wide stone hall. A fireplace lay in one wall, a pile of wood and coals stood on the hearth, ready to be lit and held back by a large iron grille. Opposite the fireplace stood a large wooden door, and between the two was a long table carved from some sort of dark, polished stone.
As he took in the room before him, he realised that the door stood slightly ajar. A figure stood there, watching him passively.
“Hello?” He called, standing on the last step and uncaring of his nudity. The figure didn’t respond.
Roughly the height of a man, it was cloaked entirely in the darkness of the doorway. Even though he couldn’t see its eyes, Martin was sure that it was watching him.
He took the last step, his feet finding the floor of the hall.
The wind behind him stopped abruptly and a fire burst into life in the fireplace. The stones beneath his feet radiated a pleasing warmth and he turned towards the figure again, hoping the firelight would grant him a better look.
“Hello.” He said, making out a hooded cloak draped over a humanoid figure.
“Eat.” The figure said, gesturing towards the table.
Martin looked and noticed that now it was set for two. A pair of candlesticks burned at either end and shed their light over a selection of vegetables and meats.
His feet made no noise on the stone and he sat in front of one of the place settings, his hands automatically pulling some of the food towards him. He looked up as he finished piling slices of meat onto his plate and started slightly.
Without making a noise, the hooded figure had crossed the room, filled their plate and started eating. Rough, dextrous hands ferried food from its plate to its mouth and two eyes glinted from within the shadows of the hood.
“Who are you?” Martin asked, his thoughts and voice tinged with an ethereal, dream-like quality. Absently, he understood that he was dreaming but the seat beneath his naked bottom felt more solid than anything he had ever sat upon and the food in his stomach warmed him as no food had before.
“I am merely the observer and the artist waiting for the right moment.” The figure opposite him said. The voice was deep, almost certainly male, and oddly gruff, as if the speaker had a problem with his throat. “It is not yet.” It stood and backed away from the table. “Until the next time.”
The hall around Martin shimmered and faded, leaving only an ache and a longing in the pit of his stomach. He moaned in his sleep as the taste of the meat on his plate faded to a memory.
The dream came again, night after night, for a month without change.
Martin became withdrawn as he began searching for the strange meat he ate in his dreams, the taste of it lingering long after he woke. Simone began to worry as her husband pulled away from her, his face becoming drawn and pale, their conversations becoming something that happened once a day if she was lucky.
It was two weeks after he bought the painting that Martin received the phone call.
He was studying an antique cookery book when the phone rang. He glanced at it and dismissed it almost immediately, turning his attention back to the recipes on the yellowed pages.
It kept ringing and he sighed in frustration, snatching it from the table in front of him.
“Yes.” He grunted.
“I know about the painting. I know its provenance.” The voice on the other end of the call said. “Meet me at Riordan’s in an hour.” There was a click and the caller hung up. Martin stared at it for a moment and then put it down thoughtfully.
Last night, the dream had changed. The wine in his glass, usually a crisp white had been a thick red. Riordan’s, he knew, served a wide variety of wines. Maybe there he would be able to find something to satisfy the craving he felt to drink that wine again.
Rationally, he knew that he would probably never be able to find the food and drink of his dreams, but there was a need growing in the pit of his stomach that he had to satisfy.
He stood and left his study.
“I’m going out.” He called to his wife. “I won’t be long.” As he moved through the house, fetching his coat and shoes, he felt energised. The past month was covered by a thick fog in his memory, but now his thoughts were crystal clear and he had a goal he could achieve.
Riordan’s was only half an hour away and he savoured the walk, enjoying the crisp air as it brought a blush to his checks. He had forgotten how much he enjoyed winter afternoons outside and he was smiling as he reached the wine bar.
The bartender returned the smile and served him the driest, darkest red they had.
He took the glass to a corner table and waited.
A young man approached him about half an hour later.
“Martin Sherringham?” He asked, his voice quiet and uncertain. Martin nodded. “Robert Upham. We spoke on the phone.” He pulled out the chair opposite Martin and sat, his eyes darting to the wine glass in Martin’s hands.
“The dreams have started.” He said quietly, his face paling. Martin frowned and pulled his glass closer.
“You said you knew the provenance of the painting.” The man nodded, his eyes flickering to Martin’s and then away again.
“Yes. It,” Robert licked his lips, “was painted by Richard Upton Pickham shortly before his disappearance. A friend of his owned it before being committed for hysteria, whereupon it ended up in a private collection for a number of years.” His hands, laid flat on the table, began to tremble slightly. “My father bought it during an estate sale. It was in my house for three months before…” His voice drifted into silence and he closed his eyes momentarily. “Before it happened. After that, my grandparents had it thrown in storage. When they died, it was sent to be auctioned in error.” He swallowed and met Martin’s eyes, his hands clenching into fists. “If I had been in a position to deal with the painting before then, I would have done so.”
Martin stared at him.
“Deal with it how?” He asked.
“I would have burned it.” Robert said. “That painting is evil.” Martin flinched at the passion in the young man’s voice, as if physically struck.
“It’s just a painting.” He said defensively. “Nothing more.”
“Just a painting?” Robert’s voice had become loud and high-pitched. “You’ve already been having the dreams, haven’t you? Next will be the cravings, they’ll sink their hooks into your soul and then the urges will start. You are lost at that point. LOST!” He giggled to himself.
Martin saw the bartender move to a phone hanging from the wall behind the bar and pick it up, dialling a three-digit number.
“When the urges have you, when you are so lost in dreams that reality ceases to mean anything to you, when you are lost to yourself and your family, you will do anything, ANYTHING, to satisfy them.” Foam began flecking at the corner of Robert’s mouth. “I saw. I saw what my father did. I saw what you will become.” His eyes, full of a manic strength met Martin’s and froze him in place. “I know what you will do. There is no forgiveness. No redemption. You must destroy it.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “You must destroy it to save yourself.”
Without warning, he fell from his seat to the floor and began to spasm violently.
After hours of answering questions from a variety of people in uniform, summoned by the bartender, Martin returned home and gratefully sank into bed next to his wife.
A part of him knew that Robert’s ravings were the product of an unsettled mind, but there was a small part that wondered if the young man had been telling the truth.
Were his dreams and the painting linked?
He dreamed again that night.
The staircase extended below him as it always did. Each step as familiar to him now as the steps in his own home. This time, however, it seemed shorter, the journey passed far quicker and he was no longer wearied when he reached the hall.
The fire burned in the fireplace and his strange, nightly companion waited for him.
The table was laid for two, as usual, and he sat without prompting.
“Something is different tonight.” The figure said. “The dream-world reacts to you. See?” He pointed to Martin’s plate. Unbidden, a pile of meat rested there, rare and steaming. “You are Dreaming. The others who came here, they could not Dream. The time is almost near.”
“Of course I am dreaming. I’m asleep, like every time I dine here. All of this is a dream.” Martin said, his knife and fork carving a sliver of meat from his plate.
“No, my friend. These are the Dreamlands. They are as real as you are in life.”
Martin paused, his fork halfway to his mouth.
“You’re making as much sense as the young man I spoke to earlier. He claimed many things. Many crazy, impossible things.”
“Sometimes, the craziest things are the most real.” The figure said quietly. “I did not think I would ever reside here, waiting for the right moment, and yet here I am, night after night.”
Martin chewed thoughtfully.
“Why are you here? You are always talking about the right moment. What is it?”
“Do you remember what I said that first night? About who I am?” Martin nodded.
“You said you are an observer and an artist.”
The figure shook its hooded head.
“I said I am THE observer and THE artist.” It gestured to the hall around them. “Look around you. Does this not seem familiar? Have you not seen this hall before?”
The silence between them stretched into eternity as Martin struggled with what his mind told him could not possibly be.
“This is the painting I bought. I am dreaming about it because I spend so much time looking at it.” The figure shook its head.
“You are dreaming about it, because you will Dream it. Time works differently in the Dreamlands. I am a mere artist out of time waiting to paint; it is you who will set the scene. The others who came before you were forced to try to make the painting in the waking world, but you have the gift and so here I wait.”
“Pickman.” Martin whispered. The figure inclined its head.
“Indeed. All that you have seen in the painting, I will record for you to see in the painting.”
Martin swallowed some of his wine, the coppery, salty flavour pleasant on his tongue.
“Dream logic, for a strange dream.” He said. “I’ve not been eating properly and this is the result.”
“We shall see.” Pickman said as the hall shimmered and faded around them. “We shall see.”
He didn’t dream of the hall again for a while after that.
He went on holiday with his wife, who was happy to see the colour return to his face and the spark to his eyes, and buried himself in his work. He ate and drank carefully, ignoring the gnawing sensations in his stomach that constantly assaulted him.
He received word that the young man who had called him had escaped from a psychiatric ward some weeks earlier but had been re-committed and wouldn’t bother him again.
Life resumed a semblance of normality for a few weeks.
When he next thought of the painting, he remembered his idea to remove the plaque and decided that he would do it himself. It wouldn’t be the first time he had done such a thing and no-one else would have to touch his painting.
He took his tools into the gallery and unveiled the picture. He was drawn into it once more and noticed the familiar design carved into the hearth, the piles of food brought a memory of taste to his tongue and the people on the floor, lost in ecstasy, called to him. For a heartbeat, he longed to know the pleasure they were experiencing, he longed to lose himself in flesh and lust.
His eyes fell upon the plaque and the moment passed.
The screws affixing it to the frame came out easily and within minutes he had it resting on the floor by his knee.
He heard Simone’s footsteps behind him.
“I thought you might like a drink,” she said, placing a glass of wine on a nearby table. “Do you want me to take that for you?” She asked, motioning towards the plaque.
He smiled and offered it up to her.
“Could you put it in my study? I’ll find something to do with it after I’ve repaired the frame.” She nodded and reached out her hand for it.
He didn’t see what happened next, but she gasped and let go of the brass plaque. It fell to the floor with a clang and a line of crimson began welling along her fingertips.
Without thinking about it, he reached for her hand and kissed the wound.
The blood on his lips awakened a fire within him. A need for more of that coppery, salty wine.
“Martin?” Simone said quietly. “Can I have my hand, please? I need to wash and dress it.” He blinked and forced himself to ignore the desire in his chest.
“Of course. Sorry. I’ll…” His voice trailed off and he swallowed. “I’ll sort this out and check on you.” Simone smiled and hurried away, her bleeding hand cradled against her chest.
He returned to the gallery that evening after Simone had gone to bed and idly drew back the veil to stare at the painting. It called to him, on a level he could not understand or describe. It called to him and he knew that he would answer that call, sooner or later.
He felt the cravings growing once more in his stomach and, with a horrified shudder, covered the picture once more before going to bed himself.
He did not dream of the hall that night.
In his dream, Simone came to him, covered in bleeding wounds. He sealed each one with a kiss, savouring the taste of her blood, before they made passionate love to each other. The fire and ferocity of their union was unsettling but when he awoke in the morning, she was happy to accept his advances.
They lay together in the aftermath, her pale skin covered in bite marks. Something had driven him to bite her for the first time and the taste of her sweat-slicked flesh drove him to heights of passion he had only heard of as he remembered the taste of the meat from his dreams.
They slumbered in a blissful haze for the rest of the morning before life intruded upon them.
The day, for Martin, passed slowly. He did everything as if in a fog. His mind was constantly replaying the taste of his wife’s blood and flesh, the faces of rapt pleasure in the painting and the passion he had awoken with.
He returned to the gallery that night, intent on checking the picture one last time before sleep. He did not know why but he knew that he would gain a greater understanding of it if he did.
He had only standing been there for a few minutes when the realisation hit him that the faces of ecstasy in the painting could easily be faces of pain and that what he had taken at first for loving embraces could be something more savage.
That night, he Dreamed of the hall.
He stood in the centre, Pickman by his side.
“Now it is the right moment.” The artist said, withdrawing to stand in the doorway. “Tell me what you to see, Dreamer. Show me. Make it happen.”
Martin looked around himself, remembering the food on the table, piles of meat and goblets of dark, red liquid. He remembered the people on the floor and gave himself to the urges growing in his chest.
“Tonight, artist, tonight I dine on blood and flesh and pleasure!”