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The hour is late and the walls within the castle rise out of the darkness like black curtains hiding sinister secrets. Merry music coming from the great hall pours into my ears. The king is entertaining the lords and ladies of his court with dancing, troubadours, and wine. The jubilant noises grow faint as I approach until dissipating into silence as I peek inside to find it empty. I blink, then refocus my eyes on the desolate room, but the joy I heard a moment ago never manifests into the life it promised. I shrug my shoulders, blaming it on the whiskey.
I take a swig from my flask before stumbling through the castle, looking for something valuable to slip into the pockets of my waistcoat. The stakes are high when stealing from a king. But it makes the thrill that much more intense when the consequences are fatal. It makes my heart beat fast and I feel alive. Because when the thrill wears off, I feel empty again—dead inside. Perhaps tonight, I’ll find what I’m looking for.
I stagger into a large, empty room lit with ornate candelabras. Distant whispers echo throughout the room as I stand frozen in the centre. Grotesque shadows spring from the walls and dance around me, threatening to touch me. The scent of decay invades my nostrils, conjuring images of corpses rotting in the dark. There are too many voices, growing louder and louder. They threaten my sanity. I cover my ears and shut my eyes to block the sensory chaos before I go mad.
After a few moments of suspected silence, I remove my hands from my ears and peek through half-closed eyelids. A blurred silhouette of a skull manifests on the wall, then floats toward me. Instead of running, I unsheathe my dagger and throw it at the apparition. Both the skull and wall vanish, and in its place a stone archway introduces a long corridor.
The whiskey must be taking its toll on me. I shrug and reach for my flask, taking a large gulp. The same irresistible impulse that brought me to the castle takes me down the corridor.
It’s lit with flaming torches and a large stained-glass window with blue, purple, green, orange, white, and violet panes marks the end. Portraits of wealthy nobles flanked by knight’s armour stretch across the length of the passage.
An icy chill nips my ear and takes me by surprise. I stumble into the metal plates of the suit of armour closest to me and the clanging echoes loudly. Heart in my throat, my eyes dart to the entrance to see if the noise alerted anyone to investigate, but there’s no one… and nothing there but a solid wall.
Fear paralyzes and shackles me to the floor. This castle is a cage and I, it’s rat. I’m used to steady nerves to match my hands, but they now tremble as I drink my flask dry.
Another cold nip at my ear and a feminine whisper startles me into dropping my flask. I spin around.
There’s nobody there.
A portrait of a noble woman guarded by knights’ armour steals my attention. Her beauty takes me aback and I forget my fear under her gaze. It is a painting for my eyes alone, hung on the wall for some time, dusty and unloved… waiting for me. With the face of an angel and a sweet, bewitching countenance, she wears a slight smile hinting that she knows something I don’t. I can’t help but smile back at her.
The hairs on my neck rise to attention, directing me to the stained-glass window. A woman in a long black dress stands in front of it, a rich rainbow shimmering around her like a halo. I recognize her immediately.
How could I not? She has the face of an angel—my angel.
Quiet whispers lace the air like a sweet perfume trying to mask another scent. It’s sobering, yet I’m dizzy as I walk towards her. I need to profess my love to her, but the words come out low and slurred. She holds her finger to her lips to silence me—my words aren’t necessary. She already knows. That small, secretive smile plays with the corners of my angel’s mouth. Behind that smile is the secret to my eternal happiness. She stole my heart like a thief in the night prowling the castle.
Her eyes never leave mine. They are pale enough to reflect the flaming torches on the wall. The panes of glass behind her turn crimson, although I hardly notice. Goosebumps envelop my skin, because she has that effect on me—that, and I seem to get colder the closer I get to her. I need her to warm me. These ideas would have seemed strange to me only minutes ago, but seeing her portrait planted a seed within me that sprouted deep roots and are now cascading out of control. The closer I get to her, the further behind I leave myself. But the distance between us is enough to pull my soul from my chest and render me breathless. I need to reach her. With my eyes on my beloved, I could almost ignore the sharp, shooting pains threatening to bring me to my knees as I close the gap between us.
Ominous whispers saturate the corridor but evade me and I am glad for it. They seem to have so much to say, like they have been waiting centuries for ears to hear their pleas. But I know that if I listen to their words, I’ll beg to be deaf. They are tortured whispers of the ages, trapped in a part of the castle built of blood and bone.
The stained-glass window fades to black and is replaced by wooden double doors on hinges that curl decoratively on to the door like claws inviting me in. I can hear an orchestra playing behind them. The sound of a flute swims throughout the corridor and soothes my soul to sleep with its sweet vibrations.
In the glow of the torch light, I see that my angel’s cheek has a scarlet stain. Her cryptic smile returns when she catches me noticing.
The music gets louder and louder. The ticking of a clock booms from behind the door, its pendulum swinging with a dull and heavy monotonous clang. My angel dons a black and red masquerade mask, then offers me her hand. I take it—bringing her cool and clammy hand to my lips for a kiss. I can feel the stickiness—not from her skin, but from mine. I don’t have to look to know that blood is weeping from my pores. But a small price to pay for her caress.
“Come my love, the hour is almost stricken.” Her voice is dry and throaty—like she hasn’t spoken in ages. It makes me delirious with pleasure.
As the double doors open, my soul finally stops the search it has been on for some time. For what it couldn’t find in life; it found in death. The stakes are highest in love.
The clock chime reverberates throughout my sepulchre as the music overwhelms the rhythm of my soul and disrupts the rise and fall of my chest. My angel of death may have plundered my soul, yet it is I who have stolen the pleasure to dance with her into eternity.
How did you get the idea to make the ‘Red Death’ a feminine entity?
It was unconsciously done. The idea for the story came to me as a brief flash of a woman with a masquerade mask and the sound of a grandfather clock chiming in the background. I wrote the story late one night four days after having my son at the end of May 2020—so I was quite sleep-deprived when I wrote it. I think writing in that altered state accounted for my protagonist being drunk. Sleep-deprived and drunk aren’t that different. I started writing in the first person, as someone navigating a seemingly empty castle and the story just evolved from there. It took me awhile to realize that my protagonist was a male. I had no idea until I was almost finished the story that the woman was the Red Death coming for him.
Most of my short stories start off like this—just a vague idea, sound or image with no concrete direction. I rarely know what will happen until I start writing and let the characters take the lead.
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem, and why?
I have many favorites. But if I had to choose, I would say “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe would probably be my favorite gothic poem. I love the rhyme and rhythm of it. There’s an interesting fairy-tale-like tone to it—joyful, yet eerie. I love the supernatural set up of the poem—the very idea that angels would be jealous and vindictive enough to kill his beloved.
My favorite gothic novel is “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde. I love Wilde’s writing style—it’s stunning, witty, and rich in meaning. The story of the young, attractive socialite that prayed for the painting of himself to take on the burden of aging so he wouldn’t have to, lingered in my imagination long after reading it. I found it unconventional and relevant—it mirrors the dark elements of human nature, like vanity and deceit in such a way that is grotesque, yet relatable. We are all a little like Dorian, and this is especially evident with social media. We project idealistic versions of ourselves through pictures with inspiring captions, or socially acceptable verses that we know will make us likeable and admired by anyone who might see it. I think humans are innately deceitful. We choose how we are represented and keep our true character hidden behind a perfect-outward facing mask.
Why do you like to write fiction, and what does writing fiction bring into your life?
As much as I love to read and write non-fiction, fiction gives me the freedom to have no restraints. I’m more in control of the fictional world than I am with the real world, so I can shape it to my purposes, even if my goal is to reveal uncomfortable truths.
Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?
Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.
Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.
Do you have a favorite writing space or a place you go to for inspiration?
Before I had children, I loved to go out in nature. Now this is much more difficult to do accompanied by young children. So now I go wherever I can get silence. Usually it is when everyone else is in bed and I am in the living room or hiding in my bedroom.
What are you working on now?
I have two short stories that I am working on and then I am going back to finishing the first draft of my novel.
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?
Renee Cronley is a poet, writer, and nurse from southern Manitoba. She studied Psychology and English at Brandon University, and Nursing at Assiniboine Community College. Her work has appeared or will appear in NewMyths.com, The Brandon Writers’ Collective Anthology, The Quill, and The Westman Journal.
I am part of a local writers group called the Brandon Writers’ Collective and I have a profile page on the website. You can also find me on Instagram and Twitter.