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If I could stop time, return to the singular moment when my path diverged from happiness to one of despair, I would switch my course and walk away from that cursed beast who had eyed me with contempt on our first meeting. But I cannot, and it is my greatest torment.
In the unfortunate hours during which I wake from the gift of nothingness into this new reality, I am doomed to replay the events that led to the loss of my beloved, until sleep finds me again.
When Anabelle had at last agreed to marry me, it was the happiest moment of my half-lived life. I was a malingerer, you see. My working life was spent in lowly positions: a dustman, a rat catcher, even a pure finder. It seemed fitting to look down on me, but I was single-minded in my goal to create for myself a better life than that of my father and his father before him. Nary a half-penny I misspent. I became educated in matters of investing, financing several lucrative ventures. I applied those profits towards a coal mine on the West Coast of Canada. It has since exceeded the wildest predictions of success.
I knew Anabelle favoured me. At the grand balls, her head would turn when I neared, inclining toward me rather than her dance partner. But to win her hand, I knew I must impress her father, and so I set out to succeed in the same way that I had succeeded in building my wealth.
She delighted in my declarations of adoration at her beauty, her carefree, childlike spirit, her compassion, and her tenderness. And then, she delighted in my gifts. I admit that it became as an addiction for me, to see the flush of pink rise to her cheeks and the failed suppression of a smile. Then the dip of her head as a finger moved to smooth a blonde lock behind her ear.
Such gifts proved my love for my Anabelle, but I do curse them now.
One afternoon, while strolling with Anabelle’s aunt, we came upon a pasture where several Friesians grazed. Anabelle remarked that she didn’t much care for these inferior Friesians, bred lighter and faster for trotting races. She’d a keen love for the power and grace the breed had once possessed as formidable war horses. So, I set upon the idea to procure for her a stallion of original stock. Such a lavish gift would surely convince her father of my means and devotion.
I’d come by the horse, not at auction—the likes of which produce questionable stock and worn-out nags—but through a trusted colleague. The stallion’s pedigree was impeccable. My colleague had advised me to bring my top offer, as there were several interested parties. I hurried to Norfolk, to secure the stallion.
You never saw such a handsome creature: the lustre of his blue-black coat, gleaming in the sunlight; his muzzle, sloped in a regal incline; his eyes intelligent, taking me in with the wisdom of a decorated general surveying the battlefield. But there was something more— a look of contempt—before, with a snort, he was off for another turn around the ring.
Upon my mentioning the beast was to be a gift for my sweet Anabelle, the breeder protested. “Oh no, sir. This is not a lady’s horse. This is a breeding stallion.”
I swore that I would not allow Anabelle to ride him. But of what use is a man’s caution when a lady is determined to do as she pleases? I offered on him, and the breeder accepted.
I created an elaborate affair of my gifting him. I had his mane decorated in purple velvet ribbons and his hide scrubbed clean to shine like satin. His tail was braided and his hooves buffed and polished.
When Anabelle hurried to the gate to greet me, she could not hide her delight, and then her exhilaration as, dressed in my finest attire, I asked for her hand. With her father’s approval, we wed as soon as could be arranged.
Four months into wedded bliss the ghastly news came. I was in my study and leapt up as Thomas’ shouts reached me. “Mr. Richards, come quickly. Mrs. Richard’s been thrown. She’s—oh god! It’s dire, sir.”
I jerked open my desk drawer and grabbed my pistol.
“Anabelle,” I shouted, bursting out the kitchen door. The vining of terror and sorrow strangled me as I raced toward the huddle of staff near the forest’s edge.
Hands reached to stop me, but I pitched myself down the embankment into the woods below where my beloved Anabelle lay, but the angle of her head and neck revealed what I’d feared. I fell before her disordered body and lifted her head, loose on her neck, to kiss her still-warm lips. Those lips that would never again utter my name. Her violet eyes had now darkened to indigo. I touched the bodice of her riding habit, her lungs lay still, forever relieved of their function. I let her slide from my grasp and rose. The pistol’s weight in my grasp galvanized me as I blinked away tears in my determination to find the beast that had stolen my Anabelle from me.
The damnable creature moved through the trees like a trail of smoke after a gunshot. I followed him to a clearing where he turned to me, muzzle pressed forward, head lowered, ears flat against his skull. I levelled my pistol at him, and when the evil flashed in his eyes, I fired. The beast struck the earth, dead. My wails for Anabelle mixed with the fresh copper of spilled devil’s blood.
It’s been two weeks since Anabelle was taken from me. I am a mere outline of a once-rich painting. I sleep by day and awaken to the subtle variances of my furnished room cloaked in darkness, and, through the window, the silver lawn beyond. And to something else. On the edge of the embankment, where my Anabelle took her last ride, there is movement. A shadow paces, weaving itself through the trees.
Is it my love come back to me? Come to curse me for gifting her that hellish creature who threw her to her death? Or has she come to absolve me? To admonish me not to despise myself, for heaven is all she’s imagined and more? I do not know which, for the shadow does not step forward and reveal itself.
When I next awoke to the shadow moving at the forest’s edge, I summoned my courage to open the window, and I called out, “Anabelle, my dearest.” I waited, straining my ears in the silent night. But only a foul odor, like the taint of death, was returned to me. Choking, I slammed the window and collapsed in tears.
It was after this night that I began to hear my name.
Hayden. It reached through the nothingness and prised apart my eyes. My gaze fell upon the open window. Had I left it so? I could not remember. As I threw the covers aside and placed my feet on the floor, an icy chill grabbed me. Then it sounded again—my name, cloaked in a kind of screech that echoed across the property. Whatever it was out there, I could avoid it no longer. It had summoned me.
With dread, I pulled on my dressing gown, ran downstairs, and thrust myself into the starless night. I raced across the lawn, through the lacy mist, toward that shadow. Toward my Anabelle? But another shriek cut through the tomb-like silence, halting my steps—the deep and urgent nicker of a horse. My mind stalled as my innards twisted, throwing me into a terror I had never known.
Then, the shadow began to take form. It loomed over me. His muscular chest once reflecting an inky sheen, was now dulled with mud and detritus. Those purple velvet ribbons lay tattered and tangled in his mane. His angular nose pressed forward into the moonlight, eyes gleaming with malice. The beast, the devil Anabelle had named Midnight, stood fully before me. Between those fearsome eyes, the bullet wound where I’d shot him, oozed blood. It trickled down his face, painting his muzzle in grisly crimson.
“Take me to her. I beg you.”
The dreadful horse bobbed his head and that weeping wound splattered me with the blood of the damned. There was nothing left for me in this world. A world without my beloved, my Anabelle, was a world foreign and detestable to me, and so I bore my terror, ran at the hell-sent creature, swiped at the bedraggled rein that hung from his shoulder, and flung myself onto that cursed hide. I flayed him into action, a motion he only readily accepted as with a pump of that powerful neck he bore me away towards the embankment and towards the arms of my beloved Anabelle.
“Midnight Rider,” by Melanie Cossey, was first published on October 29, 2020 in Love Letters to Poe and can be found in Love Letters to Poe: Volume 1, Issue 1. You can get a free copy by joining Love Letters to Poe.
Interview with Melanie Cossey, Author of “Midnight Rider”
What inspired your story?
In addition to being an author, I’m also a freelance editor. I was working with a client on her Regency Romance and we were having a back and forth about horse behavior, in particular, how horses have personal space and how they may react and throw their rider if spooked due to personal space violations. I began thinking about my own experiences of being thrown from, and almost thrown from, horses. One particular time, I was riding over a bridge and a firetruck sounded its loud and obnoxious horn at me. For what reason, I have no idea—just to be “cute” maybe? Well, my horse spooked and started to prance and could have thrown me into the river below. No doubt, I would have likely broken my neck and died. Thinking about this frightening experience, I felt inspired to write a gothic story involving a horse—a cruel dark creature. Then I thought of Poe’s The Raven, in how a sinister bird tormented the narrator with thoughts of his deceased beloved. The idea of an “evil” ghost horse tormenting the man responsible for his demise thrilled me, and I wanted to explore how they would resolve their conflict. Which, they do, at the end.
We’re all familiar with Poe’s frequent use of animals in his tales. What prompted you to choose a horse for yours?
My reply above answers much of this, but I can expand a little further on the horse theme and why I chose a Friesian. A friend of mine owned a Friesian and it was one of the most magnificent horses I’d ever seen. I fell in love with the breed. Not only are Friesians beautiful, with their glossy black coats and long, silky manes, but they are powerful, yet elegant and graceful. Friesians have a long history as both a riding horse and a draft horse, and were said to be strong enough to carry an armored knight. In the late 1800s, the Friesian was being breed to heavy warmblood breeds such as the Ostfriesian and the Alt-Oldenburgers, collectively known as Bovenlanders. Thus, pure Friesian stallions were in decline. This fact fit perfectly into my story, as Anabelle desires to own a rare, pure Friesian stallion. In thinking about Poe’s use of animals, and my own observance that horses seem to be under utilized in the gothic genre, I felt a strong desire to make use of a horse in my gothic tale.
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
It’s so hard to pick a favorite, but I’d have to say it would be Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. Frankenstein was conceived under the ultimate gothic conditions. In 1816, Mary Shelley was vacationing in Switzerland with her lover, Percy Shelley, and friend Lord Byron, when inclement weather kept them inside. While reading German ghost stories to pass the time, Byron challenged his friends to write a gothic tale of their own. After two days of struggling to think of a plot, the answer came to Mary by way of a dream, and she spent the next two years penning this amazing work. Frankenstein is a novel of incredible depth that explores complex themes, such as parental love vs. parental rejection, (and how this ties into biblical theology). It explores prejudices and fear, and the psychological effects of shunning. Frankenstein combines the morbid and occult with moral questions of scientific interference, at a time when humans were making huge scientific leaps, and questions of ethics were being raised. The concept itself was incredibly bold at the time. Here was a young woman writing a novel (that alone was questionable) about piecing together a human out of severed body parts. Can you imagine? Frankenstein also contains classic gothic elements like the supernatural, mental illness, obsession, a crumbling manor, and questions about the role of science in our lives. For this reason, I think Frankenstein is the one of the best models of what gothic fiction should be and do. It should disturb, it should raise questions in the reader of what morality and ethics are, what science is, and what it is we fear. It should have many depths and it should leave the reader fearful, but also thoughtful. Is it any wonder that Frankenstein has inspired so many stories and retellings in its 200-year long history? It has stood the test of time.
I heard you have a gothic novel out. What’s it about?
Yes, I do. A Peculiar Curiosity was published in 2018 by Fitzroy books, a division of Regal House Publishing. It is a gothic tale that takes places both in modern-day and 19th-century England. It is about down-and-out professor Duncan Clarke who discovers the journals of Victorian curiosity collector Edward Walker, in which he documents his experience with bringing a Haitian Voodou zonbi back to England for scientific study, and rehabilitation. Clarke, thinking this discovery is the key to resuscitating his flailing career, attempts to solve the mystery of what happened to the zonbi child. Like Frankenstein, A Peculiar Curiosity seeks to explore the moral implications of science and how our good intentions may lead to ill-conceived outcomes. It also explores themes of obsession and mental illness, as is typical of the gothic genre.
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?
I love writing about the darker aspects of the human psyche. As a child, I preferred stories with a punch-in-the-gut ending, ones that would leave me feeling disturbed for days or weeks afterwards, like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. Because of this early love of impactful, unsettling stories, I delight in exploring through words the troubling side of life—often against a Victorian gothic backdrop.
I have enjoyed a lifelong fascination with Victorian Era culture and am especially drawn to the era’s bizarre death practices, views on science, and pursuit of mental health. My short fiction and poetry have won honorable mentions and made shortlists. My work appears in several anthologies, including Quoth the Raven, and Love Among the Thorns, both edited by Lyn Worthen.A Peculiar Curiosity was published by Fitzroy Books in 2018. I’m currently working on a vampire tale based on the Casket Girls of New Orleans.
I am a certified editor, a member of the Horror Writer’s Association, and I teach writing workshops on Vancouver Island.