Doyle placed the package on the table. “This is what has been troubling me,” he said. “You may call me superstitious or think I’ve been hallucinating, but I haven’t returned to laudanum—at least you must believe that—and this painting, there is something sinister about it. No matter how objectively I try to look at it, no matter how I try to forget the things I’ve seen and heard, it still strikes me as wrong. You look at it, Dr. Bell, and perhaps you’ll see the wrongness of it too.”
This was a foreboding prologue to whatever he was going to tell Bell, and Bell opened the package with a little trepidation. The item itself concerned him less than Doyle’s anxiety. Bell was half worried that Doyle might have somehow involved himself in some twisty, murderous affair again (Doyle’s instincts for wrongness were often on the money) and half worried about Doyle’s mental health.
What lay inside the package was a painting that at first glance was quite innocent; indeed it radiated cheer in every brushstroke. It was a painting of a cottage decorated for Christmas. The roof and yard were covered with snow, a wreath adorned the door, and golden light emanated from the windows. Doyle shuddered and pointed at those windows, not quite touching the canvas.
“See that, Dr. Bell? You can already see…”
“Yes, it’s inaccurate to suppose a fireplace or a couple lamps could create that amount of light,” Bell agreed. “Not enough that it would reflect on snow so far from the window itself, or glow with such brilliance in the middle of the night. This painter is not much interested in realism. Even so, it is not uncommon lately for artists to use such quirks in their work. Realism is not greatly popular lately.”
“You can’t think I would fuss so over an unrealistic painting. I’m no artistic snob.”
“No. What really concerns you here? Tell me everything in detail, and I will offer you my opinion, as that seems to be what you want.”
Doyle sighed. He turned the painting over so that one could only see blank canvas and frame, and sat down in a chair. The chair sat in the corner. It was as far from the table as possible. “Very well. I’ll start at the beginning, then…”
The painting was given to me by a patient named Thomas Kinkade. One of my regular patients. I can’t say I’ve worked any particular miracles for him, nor has he ever been deathly ill during my time as his doctor, but he does get sick from time to time and he and I have struck up something of a friendship. He paints many paintings similar to this one, and I always used to see them as cheery things, though not particularly to my taste. He calls himself a “painter of light”, a description I believe to be accurate more or less.
Anyhow, he gave this painting to me about a month ago around Christmastime. He said that he wanted to give me something in recognition of our friendship and how good I’d been to him, and that he thought this one might hang well in my house. I was a bit taken aback, figuring such paintings must take a lot of effort to create. All I’d given him for Christmas was a bottle of wine and a card. But he insisted I accept and not make anything out of it, saying he made many, many paintings and sold most of them but did like to give them as presents now and again to people he thought would appreciate them. I’ll admit I was flattered that he considered me a suitable recipient to “appreciate” the painting, though I figured he would be mistaken and that the painting would hang on a wall and be quickly forgotten, if not taken down in a year or so due to not matching the décor.
This has not been the case. The painting indeed worked a great effect on me, but not one I can imagine Kinkade would have hoped.
It began with me noticing what you, Dr. Bell, just noticed yourself, that the lighting is unnaturally brilliant inside the house, far too bright or lamplight or candlelight no matter the merry occasion. And I began to notice that light also had a reddish sheen to it in places. The windows glow like the grating at a fireplace. I began to feel the conviction there must be a fire inside the house to create such an effect.
This embarrassed me. Kinkade is a well-liked artist in the community, and he paints many similar pieces. None of them has a touch of violence about them nor destruction; indeed their primary market, as far as I can tell, is families who wish some wholesome holiday decoration about their house, and perhaps elderly women. Why was I seeing the macabre where nothing was amiss? I tried to come up with other explanations of the light. Electric light is brilliant, but it rarely has a reddish sheen. Perhaps, I told myself, there was indeed meant to be something supernatural about the scene depicted. Perhaps the house was visited by some angel, an angel of Christmas. It was a silly explanation, of course. I’m sure Kinkade simply enjoys his flourishes. Nevertheless, I needed some explanation that made more sense than an artist’s caprice, and the thought of this briefly calmed my worries.
It was then that I began to hear things.
Sometimes, in the room where I had hung the painting, I would hear a crackling sound. Sometimes I would smell fire—woodsmoke, but also the scent of roasting meat. It reminded me of—well, I need not tell you, Dr. Bell, what terrible day it reminded me of, for I’m sure you remember it as well as I do.
I could ignore all these things, but I began to hear a voice, as well. It was Cream’s voice. I would hear it mostly as if in the distance. He would make casual comments to me—“Happy New Year!” once, or “Looking busy, Doyle.” Sometimes they were darker. I would imagine whispers of righteous butchery, of how I had proved as brutal a killer as he, or of how he would kill some patient or other that had come to visit. Sometimes he would say these things while the patient was still there, but they never seemed to hear him.
I swear during all these days I was not taking laudanum, nor had I fallen in a habit of drinking, nor was I sick, except with an increasing worry.
One day he went on a particularly nasty rant. It was about how he had wanted to burn me badly, on two occasions, and how unfair it was that he had never gotten the chance. “You should be the one trapped here,” he said, “rather than me, Doyle! But I’ll get you yet, I swear. I’ll find my chance.”
It seemed to me he meant that he was somehow trapped inside the painting, burning and burning in that fiery house. And as if possessed, I went up the painting and looked at the window, and I saw his face pressed against the glass. Small and dark, largely a silhouette, but it was him. I would have known him anywhere.
I stared at the painting for a long time, and he remained there. He stared out at me, frozen, his hands pressed against the glass as well. I felt that if I looked away, he would push through, out of the canvas, taking the fire with him and setting the house ablaze. That night I slept in the parlor. I did not even mean to sleep; I meant to keep an eye on him. But I dozed off. When I awoke, there was no one at the window anymore, but I knew that only meant he had returned to other parts of the house to bide his time.
It all sounds insane, Dr. Bell, don’t think I don’t know it. But I could not have this painting in my house any longer, nor was I sure what to do with it. As it concerned Cream, I came to you, for though I know you don’t believe in ghosts and spirits as I do, if Cream really does linger on Earth as a trapped spirit, I thought you should be warned—and also that you might have an idea what to do about it.
Bell had listened closely to the story. As Doyle finished, he walked over to the table to give the painting another inspection. “It doesn’t smell of smoke,” he noted, sniffing the canvas. He touched a finger to each of the windows. “Which window did you see Cream at?”
“The front one,” Doyle said, pointing it out.
Bell touched it again. “The paint is no thicker here than elsewhere, nor are there any scrape marks.”
“Does that signify?”
“It signifies that probably no one has been tampering with the painting. It was unlikely, but a simple explanation for at least the last phenomenon would have been someone painting a figure at the window while you were inattentive or elsewhere, and then removed the figure by painting over it or scraping the paint away while you were asleep. But now I do not believe that could be so. I find it hard to imagine a motive for anyone to torment you like this, anyhow, unless they were somehow related to Cream and trying to avenge him. Someone with a different grudge might try to disturb your peace of mind, but they would lack the knowledge of Cream to carry out such a scheme as to fake this haunting.”
“Cream himself would have both knowledge and motive.”
“Cream,” said Bell, “is dead.”
They looked at each other, doubt lingering in both of them. Dead and gone, and Doyle’s mind going? Dead and still with them? Alive and hiding? Which possibility was worst? There was not a good pick among the lot.
Bell squeezed Doyle’s shoulder, and Doyle relaxed ever so slightly. “I will have to pay you a visit, I think, and have a look at your house and perhaps speak with this Kinkade. It’s possible there is some scheme afoot, though it seems far-fetched. In the meantime, this painting is easily dealt with.”
“What should we do with it, then?”
“The simplest thing in the world,” Bell said. “We will burn it, and this infernal, eternally burning little cottage can at last rest as natural ashes.”
He stoked up the fire, and put the painting in, frame and all. Doyle shuddered. At first, he turned away from the sight of flames licking the canvas. Then he turned back, compelled to watch.
A piece of the canvas once floated out of the fire, light and breezy, but Bell caught it and put it back in.
As the painting succumbed to flame, slowly disintegrating into ash, a smell of meat burning came from the fire, and then a whistling sound, a bit like screaming. Doyle stepped closer to Bell, and Bell put an arm around his back. Ordinarily he would not do such a thing, as Doyle would find it embarrassing, condescending even, but at the moment he felt a bit rattled himself.
One did not expect a painting to scream as it burned. Unusual chemicals in the paint, maybe; that might account for the smell too. Perhaps Bell should have examined it more thoroughly before burning it. It had made him uneasy too, and Doyle’s fear had affected him, and so he had acted too quickly. But whatever was wrong with the painting, he thought, it really was better to dispose of it—the delay could only have been brief.
Now perhaps Doyle would have some peace, though Bell would still be visiting him and this Kinkade to make sure there was no danger.
When all that was left of painting or frame was ashes, they stepped away from the fire. Doyle said, “Thank you for burning it. I admit I feel freer now. This has been miserable for me—I understand it all sounds like madness…”
“Even were it madness, I would be glad you came to me,” Bell said. “You did right. In fact, I wish you had acted more promptly. Still, you came in good time, and I’m glad you did.”
Doyle flushed, smiled just a little, and nodded.
“Now, enough with this business for the moment. There was an experiment I wanted to show you since you’re here—and then perhaps dinner? It’s almost the right time for it.”
“Yes, I think that would be good. I haven’t felt really hungry in days…”
“But you do now, and must have plenty to eat,” Bell said. “But first the experiment. We can be quick about it.”
Thus the dying fire was abandoned and for at least the time being forgotten.