J. Edward Tremlett

In a room full of fringed black drapes and bleached animal bones, and shielded from daylight by heavy curtains, the artist known as Pandora kneels before a cobbled, eclectic altar to her Muse and prays for deliverance.

Her black hair is a tangled and haphazard mess. Her bombazine dress hasn't been washed in weeks. Mascara-blackened tears run from her eyes to her cheeks, making her look like a pancaked, elderly queen rather than the regal, commanding presence she prefers.

"Please come back," she whispers through black lips, lighting yellowish candles one at a time with the same, long fireplace match: "I love you. I need you. Please, please come back to me..."

Something nearby whispers to her - something unseen - but Pandora hitches a breath and pretends she doesn't hear it.

But it whispers again, and again, and yet still again...

So she clasps her hands and prays just that much harder, thinking of the revolver on the pillow, by her bed. Maybe tonight will be the night that the chamber she spins has the bullet.

It's her only comfort, now that her muse has been taken away.


I still don't understand why we're doing this - said one of the group of three as they approached the house, their black cloaks flapping about them in the dead wind. His hollow eyes and toothless mouth made his words seem heavier than they were.

Because it's orders, you dunce - said another, swarming with thumb-sized black beetles - And you don't question them, savvy?

No, it's not orders - said the one who led the group, turning to look his two companions in the darks of their eyes {his own stitched shut with barbed-wire} - We don't get orders. What would be the point?

{Another could have said something, there, but didn't.}

Well, I don't see the point of this, either - one said.

You wouldn't, you being so young - the leader went on - It's professional courtesy is what it is. Looking after our own.

Now how do you figure that? - asked the one, stopping in his tracks - Who really cares if he can't inspire that stupid cow, anymore? That's more work for us-

You should care, fool - interrupted another, clapping the back of the one's head sharply, as though he were an errant schoolboy - Especially if what we hear's true...

{And that was enough to shut up the one, another and their "leader" - however reluctant - the rest of the way to the house.}


Her prayers finished - for now - Pandora rises to her feet, her legs pins and needles from having kneeled for so long. The sallow candles gutter half-melted on her altar, their wax rivulets engulfing the heartfelt offerings she'd brought to it: tiny porcelain dolls heads, tarnished pennies, pinned black butterflies and a dead rat she'd found in the basement...

Somehow she knows her prayers were not answered. She knows this as certainly as she knows the shape of her dreams - her true inspirations - have changed forever, after a long, fallow season. If her muse had come back to her she'd have felt it.

But she has to try. She has to have faith.

She goes into her workroom and looks at the blank canvas before her. The paints, pencils and brushes are all there, waiting for her to take them up and create something worthy once more.

Perhaps another of her famous, nightmarish landscapes, then? Or a ghost bride, perhaps? Or maybe a demented child pulling out his own teeth with a pair of rusted pliers, an evil and bloody gap-toothed smile...

But she cries, again, knowing that these are all old glories: all of them mere repetitions of previous works. Even after hours of prayer, in front of the altar, there is nothing new in her head...

At least, nothing she cares to lay claim to.

The presence laughs again, whispering in her ear. She balls her fists and screams to block it out.

The windowpanes rattle from the force, but the neighbors have long since stopped caring about the crazy artist next door.


.. now when we get in there, you all let me do the talking - their leader said - I'm the one who knows him, after all.

I know him, too - another protested - In fact, I knew him well before you did.

Did you know him when he was spooking that comic book artist in Florida, then? - the leader bristled.

Yes. And I knew him before then, too, when he was inspiring that one fellow in Baton Rouge.

Which fellow in Baton Rouge? - the leader asked, knowing full well what the answer had to be.

The Skin Job.

This guy did the Skin Job? - one asks, suddenly a little apprehensive - Holy shit.

Exactly, my young friend - the leader said, peeking ahead at the house, which was in terrible repair - So you can, at last, understand why we have to be sure about this.

{The young one nodded, chastened both by the tales of that artist - now serving ten consecutive life sentences for his craft - and fresh worry about what they could be facing if they were right. He suddenly found himself praying that this was all a big misunderstanding. But deep down inside, he knew it just couldn't be that simple.These things never were.}

{And as one fretted, another carefully patted the side of his cloak, counting the two things he'd brought and hoping they would be enough...}


The black telephone is ringing.

She can hear it from the corner in the workroom, where she is trying - and failing - to sob herself to sleep. But she doesn't want to go and pick it up. She doesn't have anything to say to anyone, now.

At last, the answering machine kicks in. It's her agent.

"Hey, Pandora? Listen, I got a call from the gallery... the new one? He's really excited to showcase the latest, but... well, he wants samples. I showed him your portfolio but he's one of these types who doesn't like relics, as he put it. I mean, he turned down the Warhol Retrospective when it rolled through a few years back. Can you believe that?

"Anyway, look... I know you've been having some blocks, but could you maybe get some photos of what's in the pipe? I realize this is irregular as hell, but after the last few shows fell through... ah, shit, I didn't want to say that. Sorry. But you know what I mean, right?

"Call me back? Please?" *click*

She whimpers again, putting her head between her knees and rocking back and forth.

Blocks? That's not the way to describe what's been happening to her, though that's all she wanted to admit to. She doesn't have artist's block. What she has is a hell of a lot worse.

As an artist, Pandora Baines has become famous on the strength of her macabre work. She has been favorably compared to both Goya and Beksinsky. She has done conception work for numerous horror films, and no less than Clive Barker has personally optioned her to do covers for his next series {"If he ever gets off his ass and finishes the ones he's got, now," as her agent says}

But all the darkly beautiful vistas that she saw in her head - all the glittering, glistening and gory sights that she took from her lovely dreams and put to canvas - are gone.

And in their place... in their place...

But she doesn't want to think about that. So she sobs and cries, rocking herself to sleep and hoping tonight comes quickly, so she spin the revolver and see if she can escape. And if the revolver denies her peace, then she will hope tomorrow comes as quickly, so she can pray to her muse once more.

And maybe, this time, he'll listen and come back to her.


{The three entered the house through different sides, not wanting to come upon The Unzipped in a group. If the worst has happened, then meeting him like that might spook him. But then, who knows which way he would jump if he were...?}

{Their leader came into the kitchen, which was redolent with rotten food, spilled-over garbage and unwashed dishes. Vermin crawled around neat stacks of soiled plates, left to ripen around the empty sink. It reeked of despair and hope, and he quickly left it.}

{One came into the bedroom, making an intriguing discovery as he did.}

{Another, meanwhile, had the fortune to come through the workroom, where the mortal sat sobbing in the corner. He took one look at her and was soundly unimpressed, and turned his attentions to the paintings she'd been working on, instead.

{In one - which was only pencil sketch, at this point - a group of happy children in spring clothing were dancing, carefree, through lush fields of grass and wildflowers on a pleasant day. A more complete painting had a little girl sitting at a wooden desk, reading what could only be her family Bible, and smiling with a child's total joy.

Dear, sweet Wyld - another whispered as he looked at another sketch, which looked like a happy family exiting a storybook Church after services - this is... disgusting.

It would seem the rumors are true - the leader said, walking through the nearest doorway - I found more in the hall.

Just like... this? - another asked, still in shock.

Exactly like that.

But why? - another shouted - This makes no sense at all!

If they were ironic, perhaps...? - the leader posited - A dark shadow looming over this little girl? Or maybe a black eye?

Yes - another said - That would be in keeping with the program. But this...?

But perhaps I have moved far beyond that, brother - said The Unzipped, as he stepped from the shadows he'd hidden himself in and faced his two guests.


"Please come back to me..." Pandora whispers, balling her hands up and screwing her eyes shut.

That way she doesn't have to hear the pretender speaking - even though it doesn't seem like he's talking to her, this time. His words still feel like poison, dribbling into her ear: the kind Chinese Emperors used to burn their victims' brains out, one sizzling drop at a time.

Once, long ago, his words were sweet and bitter, like dark chocolate. He came to her in dreams and walked with her, hand in hand through the playgrounds of bone and sand. They watched in one another's arms as broken childrens' bodies fell down the gray, damp stairs of the Gods, one meaty thump at a time. And they made love to the sound of those tenebrous presences as they danced and cavorted far above - immense and unseen - drinking themselves full with the blood of the innocent and unfortunate...

But then something had happened. He had left her without saying goodbye.

At first, she'd thought he was playing some kind of lover's joke. But then he didn't come back for days... weeks. The visions were slow to come and hard to track, without him, and she missed his warm, teasing touch in her cold, empty bed.

But then he was back... only it wasn't him, anymore.

It was something else wearing his rags of skin and cloak of night. It was something else touching her in her sleep - something with harsh, unloving eyes that spilled over with a dark light.

A doppleganger, she'd called him. And he had laughed as he spilled false happiness into her mind...


{Another gritted his teeth, his insects scrabbling for cover within his body as he looked at the enemy.}

{Oh, it looked like the person he'd once called brother - they always did. But he could see past the clever ruse of stolen ghostflesh, and see into the soul though the one place no one could ever hope to disguise.}

I await an explanation, brother - the leader said, wondering where one was, or what was keeping him - This is some kind of working holiday, perhaps?

You could call it that - their quarry replied, his greasy teeth clattering behind the open zipper he had for a mouth - I have decided to be selfish, for a time. Can we not leave it at that?

This is selfishness? - another asked, pointing a finger at the nearest canvas {and trying to distract it from seeing what he was doing with his other hand, under his cloak...} - It looks more like a waste of a perfectly good medium to me.

But there you are wrong, brother! - The Unzipped's bony, fleshless fingers clattered as he stepped forward, running a hand over the happy landscape on the other side of the Shroud - Oh, to be certain, this is garbage. A hideous aberration. But the feelings it engenders in the woman... oh, now there is the true meaning of art!

So what becomes of her? - the leader asked, tipping another a wink - She's come so far under your wing. It seems a shame to break her, only to start all over again with someone else-

You misunderstand, brother. - The Unzipped said without turning around - I have decided to make art for myself, now. And would you not say, looking at her, that I have done well...?

{His one hand gestured to the woman, broken and crying in the corner. Another knew it for the feint it was, and ducked the blow The Unzipped had prepared with the other.

{The leader was not so fortunate, and took the main force of what was planned, leaving another to use what he'd been planning all along...

{And so did the true purpose of their visit unfold - a mercy killing.}


Though the battle rages around her, Pandora sees nothing, but hears all.

She hears the strange howling that has infested her nightmares. She hears the thudding and crunching of flesh and bone. She hears screams - terrible, terrible screams - of someone being rent to pieces.

And for a moment - just one, exquisite moment - she can see once more the beautiful, dark visions she once reveled in. She sees the endless playgrounds of sharp bone and pale sand. She sees the bodies of children, tumbled into a bloody heap at the bottom of a cyclopean, stone stairway. She hears the laugher of thirsty, dead gods drinking their fill on the blood of the innocent...

But then there is a sound like a muffled CRUMP, and the link to her Muse's pretender - or, perhaps, her true Muse revealed at last - goes dead.

And with it, so does everything inside her mind. All of her inner vision is gone, replaced with a dull, gray block in her brain that will not let her think of anything. In fact, whenever she tries, Pandora is wracked with a terrible pain - a sensation worse than any migraine she might have had.

And she howls in fury, for her mind has been broken inside her skull.


{In the end, only one remained standing, and it was another.}

Be at peace, my brother - he said to the smoking puddle of shattered ghostflesh on the floor, which had been The Unzipped {or what little remained of him} but moments ago - I will say nothing of your disgrace, here. The Order commands it thus.

{Of course, he'd have to be certain the disgrace stayed hidden. Judging how harshly their quarry had taken their leader to pieces, before another had used his little trick, he was most likely not coming back. And that solved that problem: dead Wraiths told no tales.}

{But that left only their younger compatriot to account for.}

{Another found him where The Unzipped had apparently left him: half-consumed by something that seemed equal parts spider's web and cancerous lung, stretched about the ceiling of the poor woman's bedroom. One was bound up inside it, twitching in anguished silence as the thick, black veins that ran through its gauzy frame slowly gnawed into his ghostflesh and sucked him dry.}

.. help... me... - he whispered, unable to gather the breath to scream - get me... out... burns...

Oh, do be silent - another said, pulling the spare flask out of his cloak and setting it alight...


And then, with another muffled CRUMP - and the sound of something screaming with a thousand mouths - Pandora's mind is opened once again.

This time, it feels as though she's stuck - warped. The utter, complete block she'd had in her mind before is gone, but she's right back to her earlier visions of mundane, sickening happiness. Try as hard as she might to force other things into her mind's eye, she can still only see pieces of the carefree childhood she'd been denied: visions of the joyous lives that had gone on around her, well outside her own life.

Her muse is gone, as was the tittering thing that had pretended to be him. But all they've left her are horribly cloying Norman Rockwell landscapes in her mind.

She screams once more, for all the good it might do. Better her mind had been left broken than to be tormented like this!


{He was just going to leave her like that, really. He'd taken enough chances for one day, and he felt as though he'd gone one bridge too far by burning one along with that thing - whatever it was - in the bedroom.}

{But another's conscience began to rake at the back of his mind before he was halfway to the door. He turned to look at the mortal, realizing that he just couldn't leave her like this. She wouldn't be long for this world in that condition, and a soul like hers would be bound for the Darkness they'd just sent her Muse's twisted remains back to.}

{No - if he was to fight the Darkness, then he must intervene again, this time on her behalf. So he went up to her, knelt down, and whispered into her ear.}

It'll be alright - another said, trying not to sigh too loudly - Don't you see? Your muse was here, all along. He was just trying to give you one, last gift before you sent him away.

"It wasn't... no..." she whispered, her mind too weak to understand what had just happened "Please... bring him back to me... I'm fucking broken..."

He is gone, now - another replied - But see? He has left you one last gift. The gift of foresight.


Yes, my dear. Foresight.

"But I... I can't see anything-"

Yes, you can - another insisted - Listen to me, girl: the road an artist walks cannot stay straight and even from start to finish. Times pass, and with their passing, tastes change. What was new and exciting a decade ago is long since passed away.

{He realized, as she began to nod, that his argument had numerous holes in it: the Masters would always be the Masters, after all. But this Pandora was no Master - no real visionary with something timeless and inspired to say. She was merely a competent functionary his late compatriot had lifted to new heights, while he'd been himself.}

"But... what can I do with what I now see?"

Use it - another said - Use it exactly as you see it. And as you do, tell yourself always that irony is the new macabre.

"Irony is... the new macabre."

Yes. Tell yourself this over and over as you paint what you must, girl. And be sure to tell others as well.

"Irony is the... the new macabre."

Yes. Just like that. It's your gift, now, girl. Make what you can with it.

{And with that, he turned on his heel and left her, never to return.}


That was a year ago, this day.

Pandora Baines now spends her time attending gallery show after gallery show, feted by the fawning and assorted hangers-on. Her work is truly in a class of its own, with no one else to compare it to.

Her old admirers have fallen away like leaves, but the new ones more than make up for their loss. Her old patrons have turned their backs, but wealthier ones more than picked up where they left off. And while Clive Barker hasn't returned her calls, numerous others have.

And as her new admirers file past her showpieces {Happy children dancing through green fields; A happy little girl reading the Bible; Happy families coming out of a storybook Church} she tells herself, over and over again, that irony is the new macabre. They all believe it, now, so why shouldn't she?

She laughs to herself, thinking of the revolver at home, on the velvet pillow by her bed. Maybe tonight will be the night that the chamber has a bullet in it. Maybe not.

But one day - and soon, she feels - she will slip into the darkness that lurks beyond her sickeningly-happy dreams. And once there, she will rejoin her dark muse, wherever he may have gone. He will not deny her for long, once she's made the pilgrimage to be by his side.

And she will kiss him forever as they walk through the playgrounds of bone and sand.