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The Strange Confessions Of Ambrose Blake

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I know what you are likely to think of me after I tell you my story, Dr Orne. You will most probably believe me to be a raving madman, indulging myself in wild and fanciful imaginings, and recommend that I be committed to your institution for the rest of my life, although I would never dream of harming another living soul, or even myself.

However, when I first began to study my own reflection in the mirror after the dreams began, I must admit I did entertain thoughts of putting an end to the unnatural abomination that my darker thoughts perceived to be there. I found myself recalling rumours about the bizarre habits of my maternal grandfather, and his even more mysterious disappearance shortly before my birth. No, Doctor, I never heard the full story of his life and presumed death, or why he seemed to horrify all who knew him although he never hurt anyone as far as I know. My family history is not really relevant to the tale I am about to relate, or if there is a connection, it is only sheer conjecture at this stage.

Before I tell you what I have been through of late, however, please let me reassure you that I have never suffered from fragile nerves or fallen prey to mental disturbance in my life before my fateful meeting with the so-called artist, Richard Upton Pickman. On the contrary, Doctor – everyone who knows me will affirm that I am the most sensible, rational man they have ever met. I have always felt a profound scepticism regarding supernatural matters, and have shunned religious mania, the perceived veracity of dream symbolism, and other such delusions since my earliest youth. Like yourself, I demand hard evidence before believing anything to be the truth, and I am convinced that science is the only thing worth having any faith in.

This experience with Pickman, however, is quite unlike anything that has ever happened to me before. It is something that would make even the sanest man alive, the most hard-nosed rationalist you could name, doubt his state of mind. The horror, Dr Orne – the sheer horror of it – would make even you wonder about your sanity. I would be willing to bet a large sum of money on you having such feelings about this matter, if I were a gambling man.

When Pickman first began purchasing art supplies from my company, I was not aware of him or his reputation at all. My own tastes in art-works have always been on the conservative side – I have a fondness for the old masters, particularly the likes of Rembrandt and Vermeer. Modern art holds little interest for me, and the macabre genre that Pickman seems to favour has always made me feel bored rather than attracted or repulsed. Of course I am familiar with Sime and Angarola, and know the works of Doré very well, but have never found the intense and darker modes of artistic expression to be at all alluring. Still, to each his own, and until recent times I did not stand in moral judgement of such works.

Recent events, however, have changed everything – I shudder to imagine what must inspire a man of such lunacy as Pickman – really, Doctor, Pickman should be the one having this interview with you right now instead of me!

Anyway, I digress. I should enlighten you further on why I believe that Pickman is the one who has taken leave of his senses.

Richard Upton Pickman was an unremarkable, and even excellent, customer in the beginning – he never ordered anything that would raise an eyebrow amongst my staff, or made requests that were difficult to fulfil. He paid his bills on time, and made regular orders for paints of high quality. If he favoured certain colours over others, or tended to purchase darker shades of paint rather than lighter, this was barely noticed by anyone. It was none of our business, after all. As I said before, Pickman was a very good customer.

However, when he began to order paintbrushes more frequently, and put in some rather odd requests for sturdier handles, I found myself beginning to wonder why. Our products have always been of the highest quality, very strong and extremely hard to wear out, and the fact that a painter and regular purchaser of our goods was complaining about their ability to withstand vigorous treatment had me more than a little puzzled, and I have to admit, slightly offended at first. I have always prided myself in stocking the very best artistic equipment that is to be had, and when these baffling inquiries regarding stronger stuff kept coming in, I was determined to discover what on earth was happening. I had, of course, a professional reputation to protect, and I had become somewhat interested as to how the usual exertions of painting could have destroyed the handles of such excellent brushes as those I had provided to Pickman.

So when the third or fourth such order for replacement paintbrushes arrived, instead of having the package sent by courier to Pickman as usual, I decided to deliver it myself, hoping to satisfy the slightly nagging twinge of curiosity that was plaguing me.

With the benefit of hindsight and all, Doctor, I can now honestly say that I wish I had left the matter well alone!

I introduced myself as the owner of the business immediately upon first meeting Pickman, and he seemed more than a little surprised to see me bringing his order in person, but he was certainly welcoming enough after his initial show of astonishment. Although he was very courteous in his manner, and graciously invited me in when I expressed an interest in his work as a reason for my visit (although this was of course, a mild falsehood) I found myself feeling a vague unease in his presence and subsequently, an irrational dislike of the man began to take root inside my mind.

As I stated to you earlier, Dr Orne, I pride myself on being one of the most reasonable of men, and such emotions as Richard Upton Pickman had stirred within me upon our first and only meeting can justly be described as irrational. But the feeling persisted, Doctor, and there was no denying that it seemed to increase with every moment I spent in that infernal person’s company.

How can I describe them, Doctor, those aspects of Pickman’s appearance and manner that were so off-putting despite his outward politeness? To a less discerning eye than mine, Pickman may have seemed entirely normal. But there was something about the look in his eyes that disturbed me – an almost feral glint, a touch of something dark and primal that struck me, upon later reflection, as almost inhuman. And the set of his jaw had a touch of the animalistic about it also – an ever so slightly canine hardness to it that had me subconsciously wondering if, were I to stumble across Pickman in a more private moment, I might find him crouched on all fours devouring a plate of raw meat just like a savage dog.

Oh, you may raise your eyebrows, Dr Orne, and I really don’t blame you for your incredulity. But had you met the man, you may have found yourself developing a similar impression. It’s fortunate for you that you haven’t ever encountered him, Doctor, and I sincerely hope that you never do. Even for those with the calmest of minds, it’s an experience that I definitely wouldn’t recommend.

Pickman, with a slight bow and an inviting gesture of his hand, ushered me into what appeared to be a parlour of sorts. I placed the parcel I had brought on a nearby table, and gazed with a gradually burgeoning sense of revulsion at the series of canvases on the opposite wall that Pickman indicated as being some of his most recent creations.

How can I explain what I saw, Doctor, without sounding like a hysterical old woman or feeble-minded child? Each and every one of these paintings seemed to concentrate upon the same kind of fantastical beasts. It wasn’t the fact that these were creatures not of this world that horrified me – in my long career I’ve come across many an artist who daubs the forms of dragons or demons upon canvas and gleefully steps back expecting gasps of horror from his audience. These puerile efforts are obviously the work of a warped imagination, and can be dismissed as a weak effort to sell works by the means of shock value.

Pickman’s art, however, was completely different to this – or to anything else I have ever laid eyes on! I wish now that I had never met the man – if he truly is a regular human being and not some kind of fiend – and that I had never seen the products of his manifestly disturbed mind!

He definitely displayed talent – it was not as if his technique itself was a poor one. I call it a stinking, putrescent, and even demented sort of talent, but there was plenty of skill there nevertheless, however repellent his subject matter might be. And it was certainly repellent, I can’t stress my belief in that fact enough!

It was the utterly ghastly realism of his work, Dr Orne, which made me sick to my stomach. The repulsively rubbery texture of the preternatural animals’ skin, the glaring eyes and viciously sharp fangs, the drool and mould that seemed to be a ubiquitous feature of these dreadful beings... it was as if Pickman had painted these creatures from life, even though that is, I sincerely hope, impossible. And to add to the strangeness and revolting appearance of reality, the settings for the scenes featuring these abominations were most ordinary ones indeed. No hell-fires, underground caves or mythic kingdoms were depicted in the background – churchyards or other such commonplace areas were the stage for the horrible acts Pickman had his protagonists performing.

Pickman must have known what the look on my face meant, for his own expression immediately twisted into a darkly self-satisfied smile.

“As you can see, Mr Blake,” Pickman said with another, somewhat exaggerated, gesture of his hand, “I prefer to paint in what the common man may describe as an unusual style, although in my opinion it is a perfectly natural one, and painting these ghouls, as I like to call them, feels much more normal to me than trying to depict angels, rainbows, landscapes and the like. These are the most restrained of my works – the more intense ones I keep off display at my studio – and I hope that I can persuade my art dealer to get at least one or two of them on show in public and sold.”

“Indeed, Mr Pickman,” I replied with a barely concealed shudder, attempting to hide my sincerely felt doubt that such an event could feasibly occur. “I’m not trying to change the subject here, and your work is certainly skilful and unique, but I had hoped you could answer me one question on a different, although related topic. I’m a little curious as to why you’ve ordered so many replacement brushes of late. I don’t wish to appear conceited here, of course, but all Blake and Sons’ products are without doubt the finest and most durable that money can buy, and the sheer rapidity of your re-orders for paintbrushes, not to mention your recent complaints about the sturdiness of the handles, frankly have me quite baffled.”

At this, Pickman’s smile grew wider, and in my perception, a little more sardonic and unpleasant. His tone of voice, however, remained as polite as before.

“Ah, that is easily explained, and I’m very sorry if any of my requests or comments have caused you any offence – that wasn’t my intention at all,” Pickman replied smoothly. “To cut a long story short, in order to fund the work I most enjoy doing, I occasionally have to take on commissions of a more conventional kind, mostly portraits of prominent people in society and their loved ones.”

I cast my eyes around the room, seeking evidence of such portraits, but of course saw none. Pickman seemed to be watching my face for a reaction, but presumably not seeing what he looked for, he continued with his explanation.

“One particular sitter, a millionaire’s wife, is paying me handsomely to paint her with her favourite pet, a young mastiff that is already a powerful animal despite being still a pup. And, in the manner of most puppies, this horrid creature chews up everything in sight. Even though I am careful to place any equipment I’m not using well out of reach, this damnable dog invariably manages to get hold of whatever I’m trying to keep away from him and destroy it. His mistress, of course, is always most apologetic and compensates me in full for my losses, but as you can imagine, Mr Blake, it’s all dreadfully inconvenient and has slowed down my progress on this work drastically.”

Pickman’s gaze seemed to flick towards the mouths of the rather dog-like beasts in his paintings before he continued his story, which was plausible enough but came across as rather too glib for my liking, almost as if he had rehearsed it before my arrival.

“To combat this, I decided to invest in some photography equipment, and am currently learning how to use it, so that in future when I have to accept such commissions, I can take a series of photographs of sitters, pets and anything else they want in their portraits, and work from those at my own pace. That will save everybody, including your good self and your company, a lot of trouble all around.”

I don’t recall what else was said after that, Doctor; I can only remember making my homeward journey and the fact that I was trying to mentally pull apart Pickman’s excuse for the damaged brushes the entire way. There was no reason for me to do so, or to think that Pickman wasn’t telling me the truth. As I said before, he’d given me a perfectly valid explanation for everything. Why, then, did my feelings of disbelief persist, especially at the moments when I tried hardest to banish them?

It was on that night, of course, that the nightmares began.

I know that you’ve tried to reassure me that these are only dreams, Dr Orne – merely symbolic images dragged up from my subconscious, images that say more about my state of mind than any objective reality. Perhaps you may be right – but it’s the frequency with which the same dream recurs, and how increasingly vivid and realistic it becomes with each repetition, that has frayed my nerves of late.

In these nightmares, I always find myself transported to Pickman’s studio. This place bears no resemblance to the residence in which he received me – the best way to describe it is to say that it resembles some kind of North End slum dwelling. Hovering silent and unseen, as if I am a ghost, I watch Pickman invite a trio of bizarre guests into the room where he intends to commence painting, speaking to them encouragingly in the same alien language that these creatures are using amongst themselves. A language that is like no other tongue I have ever heard in my life, a language that seems to consist of meeping and glibbering sounds, and not of human speech.

Two of the newcomers, incredibly, are the same kind of vaguely canine, forward-slumping, rubber-skinned beings in Pickman’s canvases. Both appear to be rudimentarily female in form, and the smaller creature seems to be the daughter of the larger.

The third guest is a human boy of about eleven or twelve years of age, and although he looks like an entirely normal child for the most part, and is even rather handsome, the set of his jaw bears a terrifying resemblance to that of the ghoul (if this is indeed what she is) and her daughter, and, I have come to realise with a dawning sense of mortal terror, to that of Pickman himself.

This boy is always called to, guided and looked upon with the same solicitous care that the adult female ghoul displays toward her own spawn; I can’t express how sickened I felt, Doctor, upon realising that he, too, must be her child. I don’t know how on earth she could have come by him – I can only surmise that he was an abandoned baby she found and raised, or that he was stolen from his natural parents by this freakish abomination. I can only tell you that there he is in my dream every time, looking to her as his mother and obeying her commands.

Her calls to him, and to her daughter also, constantly take the form of gentle admonishments Upon entering Pickman’s chambers, the youngsters immediately fall upon the artist’s collection of paintbrushes, biting and chewing on the handles as if they were half-starved, until the mother ghoul carefully guides them towards a pile of hideous and vile-smelling scraps and bones in a corner of the room that Pickman has provided for their exclusive comfort and nourishment.

Oh, how unbearable the stench, the noxious, charnel stench, of these disgusting foodstuffs always is, Dr Orne! I always sense it as if I am really there in the room with the four of them, and I can hardly bear to think of these viands, and always avert my gaze when the feeding starts in earnest. I am terrified of what I might see – my thoughts inevitably hark back every time to those graveyards that Pickman delights in using as locations for his artistic subjects, and I fear I would go mad if I were to get a clearer view!

You will no doubt have concluded by now that I have descended into madness already, Doctor. But I must assert that any reasonable man would be bothered by recurring nightmares such as these, and also by the real-life events that have happened since I started having the dreams.

Every day, for hours on end, I have observed a small figure of slight build, clad in threadbare clothes, wandering up and down outside my house. Upon plucking up courage and going outside to investigate for the first time yesterday, I discovered, to my utmost dismay, that this person was none other than the boy from my frightful night-time reveries, and that the look in his eyes as he gazed towards me was neither malevolent nor threatening, but strangely triumphant, with a touch of the peculiar affection with which he looked at his foster-mother and foster-sister. As I drew closer, intending to accost this lad and demand an explanation of what he was doing there, he unmistakably mouthed three soft words at me before turning and fleeing faster than I could move to catch him.

“One of us!”

With a dread far deeper than any that has ever seized me before, I sped back inside and ran up the stairs to my bedroom, standing stock-still in front of my full-length mirror. I leaned forward, studying my face intently until I could no longer deny what I saw looking back at me.

Sobbing uncontrollably, I fell to the floor, memories of what had been said about my unfortunate grandfather making my head ache and my heart feel completely leaden. It had stared me in the face, Doctor, the cold, hard confirmation of who I was and what I am destined to become.

Confine me in your hospital if you must, Dr Orne – but I beg you, if you have any humanity and compassion within you whatsoever – please keep me away from Pickman and his kin! Don’t let them find me, Doctor – please, please don’t ever let them find me!

For what I saw in my own face was the same harsh, canine set to the jaw I had seen in the face of Pickman – and of the changeling child… and of the ghouls, Dr Orne! Of the loathsome, corpse-devouring ghouls!