“HMO” Social-Realist-Horror by Billy Stanton

"HMO" Social-Realist-Horror by Billy Stanton (House in Multiple Occupation)

H.M.O: a House in Multiple Occupation. Well, they’re still not wrong, are they? There’s no need to take down the council certificate from beside the porch door. It just used to be that our rickety and fungus-eaten bathroom and kitchen facilities, with the toilet that needs four yanks on the antique chain to flush and the fridge-freezer still rammed with past tenants’ Birdseye boxes and the oven that requires an arm to be riskily plunged in towards the gas igniters with a lighter to start up, used to be shared between seven disparate souls and now there’s only me and it.

It. It comes up from the corner of my bedroom these days, right in the spot where the snail trails of damp run down and first gather in the matted brown crust of the carpet. Once, it rose up in the middle of the staircase, as if something in the basement had generated it, or appeared in the middle of a room at above eye level, where it would circle and suck and scream. Now, now, it rises from the corner and stays there, whirling to itself like an old spinning top that can’t be stopped once a spoilt Victorian child has cast it, pumping out a white noise akin to a Henry hoover drawing in all the matter of the universe, and obliterating all other sound in its fury. I’d fair say it also glowers sometimes, all solemn-like, in the way a copper does when an anti-racism demonstration fails to kick off and start giving some back to the assembled fascist counterforces on the sidelines.

It refuses to take me into it, but I wait for it, anyway. You little tornado, you whirlwind of Tabard Street, grace me with your presence one more time. Don’t you know I’m your biggest fan? Aye, right I am. You cleared all the rest of those stinking buggers out of this place, praise Satan. No more- no precious more- do I have to hear the scions of Harley Street professionals drunkenly slurring out the lyrics of drill songs, or Jehovah-ing out leaflets for Lib Dem council runs or developing pitches for documentaries and realist-sitcoms for BBC Three producers in S. Korea-approved streetwear trainers, and a man can scarcely find such blessings often in a secular world. It’s a shame you had to indirectly and prematurely eject the little Hungarian barmaid- the one so scared to speak to her housemates that you wondered how she managed to fulfil the basic duties of her job, and your heart went out with the wondering- as well, but compromise is a must in life, and you have to learn to take a bite with the stroke.

It came first at the end of a week that had just felt wrong. Really, I suppose, a strange sort of stupor had already been in place for a while before; it was like some fairytale enchantment had been cast, putting the castle and its inhabitants into, at the very least, a waking sleep. My pen had fallen from my. hand one Tuesday evening, and not found its way back since; the desperate pull of publication dreams had faded from a paranoid-obsessive screeching in my skull, a creature that lived diurnally and nocturnally, to a thought barely worthy of consideration. Matters of employment had been missed regularly by my fellow sleepyheads, alongside dates, appointments, delivery driver knocks-at-the-door, phone notifications and pub call-outs. The lethargy had settled apparently for good in the manner of those banks of autumn cloud that don’t seem to stir or shift throughout the whole of October and early November, until the real rain and the real cold comes (down South they don’t seem to get these great grey hanging bellies quite so much, and carry on in a musty half-summer until the clocks go back).

When not fully asleep, we could be found huddled in the basement space that doubled as a living room, strewn with blankets and cushions, and dozing before the evening schedule of some obscure digital ITV subsidiary. Usually such an evening would have driven me into unparalleled heights of nihilistic despair, and sent me in search of the sharpest in my collection of disposal razors to scratch and swipe my way through paper-mache effigies of the perpetrators constructed from grainy duplications of their visages ripped from the showbiz pages of Metro, but I slumbered with the rest, feeling as if each leg had been filled with Grandma’s swamp-thick brandy and my head hollowed out and stuffed with grease paper. This was gossamer torment, as sweet and dreamy as an Everly Brothers weepie, as life-negating and draining of one’s essential essence as reading over the Daily Telegraph summary of a G7 summit.

Eventually, the spell was lifted, and the days returned to normal as we picked up the pieces of lives shattered on the kiln of supernatural indolence. We had sniffed around the carcass of decadence and found no scraps to scamper away with: no Wildean or Huysmans-infused masterpieces were produced, no orgiastic delights tasted and no state of haunting and immortal Dionysian bliss reached. Instead, we were the worse off- variously sacked, dumped and made aware of our total inconsequence by the sheer lack of notice given to our disappearing off the face of this blasted earth- and with our sense and understanding of reality destabilised.

What was even more painful was that it seemed impossible to achieve any degree of reorientation. It all reminded me of dreadful passages of my own wanton youth, where this little herbert found himself doubting everything in the material world, and contemplating whether he hadn’t simply woken up in some numbing dream that covered the horrible lurking truth of things. Aye, I was a troubled kid, alright: for a few months I walked around taking special interest in the way the edge of semi-detacheds seemed to meet the backdrop of the sky; the texture and colouring of leaves that poked out from hedgerows; the shadow and illumination of the weak noonday sun on a pile of books in a dim bedroom; the gurning expressions and occult blankness of the faces of television chat show hosts or the arrangement in space of school friends as they defended a corner on the concrete football pitch because it all seemed off in an unplaceable, implacable way. In those days, every gesture and every movement seemed loaded with some special significance or symbolism that further pointed out the fundamental plastic falseness of things: surely it wouldn’t look like that, surely it shouldn’t look like that when you do that. It was a hell without an exit door (as, perhaps, is typical of all Hells, but I persist in the metaphor), a form of torture that couldn’t be ended with a false confession- not to mention, a problem that couldn’t be shared in the fear, purely adolescent or not, of ending up in the nut house. 

The first departure occurred during this time before the little tornado first appeared, out of economic necessity. The rest of us soldiered on, me as aloof and distant as ever, while the other five attempted vainly to gather together sufficient words to explain and process their recent experiences (four of them eventually settled on medical grounds of dismissal- the lingering after-effects of a rapidly evolving virus strain- while the other bought a lot of books on hygge authored by Scandinavian pointdexters in pebble glasses or women with bob haircuts and entirely pastel wardrobes in an attempt to validate their paralytic complacency).

Then, as I previously mentioned, the tornado manifested on the stairs. It was a Tuesday afternoon when it happened. It grew from a rushing speck on the tatty tartan runner to a height of about four feet and sat for a while in front of the astonished eyes which had gathered due to it pouring out that horrible muffled screaming noise. Then the walls seemed to start bending towards it, slanting at the angles you see more often in silent German films. The stairs began to vibrate and buckle like a mechanical bull, fighting against the pull of the whirlwind, this black hole of Greater London. It ate the entirety of the tartan runner, lifting it from its holdings and slurping it away into its centre like a string of loose spaghetti, and then the whole house was put on a spin cycle. We were slung about, slammed against the walls and the bannisters, and crumpled against the ceiling that had momentarily become the floor. 

Isla, the fashion design graduate, was the first to go, her long blonde hair disappearing into the midst of the cyclone while I blinked in and out of consciousness as my head rebounded off plasterboard and oak beams. Then this visitor from Celtic wonderland, this vicious fairy being, was gone.

Remarkably, there was no subsequent questioning as to where Isla had vanished to nor any struggle to cope. Our unfortunate housemate disappeared from our minds as if she had never paid her eight hundred pound a month to the absentee landlord, or skimped out on the accompanying bill payments, at all. This house of five survivors, we wordlessly decided, had always been a house of five. We remembered the tornado, we talked about that with breathless excitement and sweating scalps, but Isla went out for us like a spark in the chip pan.

Kester- or Loachie, as I rechristened him- buried himself in Colin Wilson, Aleister Crowley and secondhand copies of the journals of the Society for Psychical Research in pursuit of a name and history for this thing, but came up with little save for the account of a similar miniature tornado that seemed to hover over the back of an unlucky pig (and do little else before blinking away) on some supposedly haunted farm in Lincolnshire or some other wind- burnt flatland in the 1980s. The rest of us set vigil for the next occurrence, waiting up in the hallway at the bottom of the stairs in shifts, while the other three slept on in the adjacent bedrooms.

When it next visited, it popped up in the middle of one of those very dormitories. Martin- Bormann in my parlance, Fartin’ Martin in that of the rest of the houseshare- was occupying it at the time, and he came reeling out to us, ranting that it was simply silently floating and looking at him- no, judging him. We fair burst into the room while he was still blathering and all but fell on our knees in praise before it. It had a kind of sick beauty about it, one had to admit; up close, before it got to its doing, it was like it was made from the pixellated fuzz of a lifeless television screen back in the days when channels used to shut down for the night, but with a thickness and a richness and a hypnotic spin to it that was close to the poetic. Occasionally, very occasionally, it seemed to stumble or dart about nervously and almost imperceptibly, like it was a living thing withering and dithering under so much worshipful attention.

It took Martin first that time, lifting him by the foot as the wailing began; as whatever lived in the heart of the wind tore the lining of its throat and shredded its polyptic vocal cords. It took Kester too, eventually, once it had expanded itself in size to fill much of the room almost as a sort of party trick, and then shrunk back to its original dimensions. I had the impression, I remember, that it had gained some control of itself; it no longer sent the whole house into a tizzy, but seemed to be able to pick and choose its targets, to exercise its anti-gravitational pull with a precise determination.

It sure tormented Kester, as if it was punishing him for trying to understand it. He was drawn in and then tossed out multiple times, slammed against the hard edges of the desk and the metal bed frame, and pinned up against the wall. 

It utterly savaged him eventually, holding him in place and taking in and then ejecting with vicious force any sharp implement it could gather up from the room, cutting his face and hands to ribbons like a poltergeist gone haywire and turned from typical mischief to grim mercenary sadism. Then it decided to put childish things away and shut the nursery door, and it devoured him wholly amongst a red cloud.

The rest of us, me and the two girls cowering in the doorway, were again almost immediately stricken with selective amnesia. Had a doctor had a chance to peer into our open skulls, I’m sure he would have seen a small crater in our brains where some sliver of traumatic memory had been sliced away. We remembered the tornado and its tricks, but we forgot Kester and Martin. There were no memorials for our compatriots; we stood no crudely- taped crosses of twigs in the flowerbeds in the way you sometimes do when a beloved pet dies in childhood. When girlfriends came to call- three or four of them, in fact- we gave deeply frustrating (to them) expressions of absolute ignorance and they departed, if not broken-hearted, at least with another tale to add to their chronicles on the subject of untrustworthy and deceitfully un- reconstructed modern masculinity.

Indeed, anyone in full possession of the facts would have been horrified to see us almost constantly in a state of hysterical and childish giddiness, praying for another visitation from our mysterious and idiosyncratic house pet and a demonstration of the new routines it had learnt. To be honest with you, pal to pal-like, it was the best I ever got on with the two girls Joanna and Bella. I’d taken against them from weekend one due to their clattering, giggling and door-slamming four a.m. returns from the sort of clubs that have an unwritten constitutional policy against the admittance of the overweight, and which exclusively feature DJs with lank long-hair playing the most minimal of music to audiences who await each pre-programmed momentary synth stab with the boggle-eyed fervour usually associated with the dancing on the feast days of St Vitus. But now, I was admitted into their secret world, their pacts and covenants, the gorgeously worthless sublimity of the life lived only for laughs.

They were tremendously judgemental people, it must be said, who delivered their sentences on the unworthy with words dashed in fire and blood and masked in ironic humorous sarcasm; indeed, they seemed to be in sole possession of magic mirrors which could reflect the hidden worst angles and unflattering sides of everyone’s personality and behavioural patterns, and you wouldn’t be wrong to claim that I entered into the spirit of their spit sessions with a particular relish, savouring the opportunity to unleash every one of my nasty instincts which usually stayed belted down except in special circumstances. The only thing they seemed particularly fond of, apart from each other and eventually me, was the tornado itself.

The next time it came, returning to its original spot on the staircase, I detested it for breaking my newfound bonds. For the past couple of weeks we had progressed to eating every meal together and staying up chatting and dancing long into the wee hours of every morning. It had never been so before with anyone in the house, and at the time I’d thought myself well-off: who could enjoy the company of Kester, who with his entrepreneurial arrogance and devotion to every pre-packaged facet of the start-up lifestyle had been an alrighty bore; Marty Bormann, a career alcoholic disguised as a museum-piece bohemian, seemingly incapable of any conversational approach other than enquiring whether you wanted to drop acid with him that evening (his partaking of which, when combined with cheap lager and whiskey, usually left him breaking out in fits of weeping every half hour or so for the rest of the night); Isla, another house ghost, remote and evidently still dreaming of the air-conditioned sanctity of the Dubai boarding school halls of residence? They had been not at all my cup. Here, at last, with the irritants thoroughly digested by some Beelzebubic minion was the actual houseshare fantasy of every homesick (as in sick-of-home) suburban teenager, and what did it matter if it excluded almost all of the rest of humanity? We were better than them anyway; we had our Enfants-Terrible-cushioned-playroom-utopia to prove it.

But our ghost finally came, and it bellowed louder than ever and blew harder too. It hovered above its old spot on the stairs for a long while and then rocketed around the entire house, smashing whatever meagre decoration had made its way onto walls and mantel-pieces; demolishing a collection of VHS tapes left over from the previous owner and spewing the liberated spools of black ribbon over every inch of the place; crashing furniture and white goods off the walls. It was a wonder the police weren’t called for the noise.

We hid under a bed in the furthest bedroom; when it slammed open the door and glided over and around our hiding place, it seemed to take a great pleasure in weighing up its target before dragging Bella out by a length of her hair and blanking her out in a blink. The last glimpse we had of her was her face, horribly stretched and contorted and pale, staring out from the very middle of the tornado; her eyes were bulging like they were about to pop, and her red mouth was hanging wide open in a way that suggested a dislocated or smashed jaw. Then there was no more Bella and no more remembering. The tornado seemed to bow, left the room noiselessly and swiftly and pulled the door gently shut behind itself.

Joanna, as was customary, could no more name or picture her old partner-in- crime (officially titled as such by dint of a flimsy inscribed wooden placard in the shape of a love heart that had been given as a Christmas present, and which hung above the departed’s bed) as she could a member of the original rioting audience of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or the residents of 47 St Davids Road, Prescot, Merseyside. But for the first time, there seemed to be some subtle awareness on her part of an absence, and this awareness eventually made its way down even to oblivious old me. She moped and mithered; she didn’t eat or wash or, by the end, even much communicate. I guess she was struggling, as one naturally would, with the feeling that her own mind had somehow turned against her and erased something which was very much needed in order to continue living; she reminded me of my grandmother, who was one of those who took to the onset of dementia darkly and badly, mourning by the winter window in shadowed and deserted sitting-rooms for memories that she both knew and didn’t know that she’d lost, waiting listlessly and impatiently for the moment when all of it- past, present and future- would be blackness for good and proper. 

I, for my own part, came to await the tornado with a similar kind of hopefulness for the kind mercies and gentle splendours of absolute obliteration. Although I remembered nothing of the total and perfect murders it had committed, I yet seemed to have the inkling that this visitor was capable of such things, and spent nearly all my few waking moments (for that strange sort of sleepy spell had been cast over the two of us again) pondering it. This longing, this restless and haunted wanting, which started sprouting then, has yet to leave me. As such, I was devastated when it claimed Joanna instead of me. We’d both fallen asleep for the sixth or seventh time that day in the furthest bedroom, overlooking the muddy wasteland of the miniature enclosed back garden (a honorary breeding ground for noisy foxes), her on the bed and me on the itchy shag rug. The howling woke me; the tornado was only present for a minute or so, dangling itself above Joanna as she stared silent and wide-eyed into its soul as it lapped up and spewed back out the bedclothes and pillows. Then it took hold of Joanna, suspended her for a moment in an arch suggesting a yoga pose, and took her in.

I beat the rug, I beat the floor, I beat the bed and the walls until my hands were black. After. I sat in the middle of the floor, rubbing my numbed palms on the thin carpet, until I could feel the soreness and the aching in them again. I remembered everything now; the gift of memory was bestowed on the last survivor like an unwanted parting kiss from a greedy mouth. I could see again Kester’s brutalised scarlet face; Bella’s waxen and swollen death mask; Isla’s hair dripping from the bottom of the swirling funnel; Martin hanging by his ankle like an executed man done in the wrong way up. They were horrible visions, to be sure, but even more horrible because they had been denied to me, and I was the only one- surely- amongst them who had ever wholeheartedly wished for death in so much of their conscious life. 

The rest had been distracted and relatively satiated- Joanna and Bella with their pitches for television shows that had no subject other than the supposed messiness of their own cosseted lives, Martin with being neutralised and neutered somewhere out in the cosmos when he wasn’t spilling clumsy chord progressions out of an expensive acoustic guitar, Isla with the promise of secure bonds and property portfolios to inherit, Kester with the sort of world where the digital replaced the wholly material, where the blissful hyperreality of the signifiers of personal and financial success overtook the bleak reality of performatively working at the laptop at two am again to an audience of zero- but they’d been put out of their misery, without ever having to either accept or deny that misery, so unacknowledged was it by them. Here was the horror of their epoch before them- indeed, here they were immersed in it. They lived precariously and without roots; they were entirely transient and forced to constantly validate their existence to themselves and others either consciously or subconsciously, while subsiding in the sort of crumbling and degraded house of former luxury that would have been a spot of on-the-nose symbolic prophecy too far even in a tacky horror novel, and being forced to live beyond their means even to secure that level of atrophied existence. But, thankfully for them perhaps, they were never able to see it clearly, and they tried to paint it all with old-fashioned colours of starving-artist-in-the-garret romanticism or else considered it a temporary setback on the road to riches (and indeed, for some of them, it may well have been, but not as smoothly and happily as they wished). They were never able to recognise that they were disposable, and ultimately as forgettable- as replaceable- as yet another restaurant selfie in the great midnight scroll-session of life. And that there is the rub; when there’s no recognition of the shiteness and wrongness of things, a refusal to recognise, then you might as well just sit and wait for the tornado to blot you out.

It has what I want and I hate it for that, and it knows it. It comes now- and, just as in this very second- it sits in the corner of my bedroom and taunts me, even humiliates me. I call to it, I beg it, but it doesn’t listen, or if it does it takes the greatest pleasure in ignoring me. 

Shut my mouth for good. G’awn, I’ve had more than enough of words and thoughts and feelings, careworn and over-familiar, cliches in the traditional patterns and dreary Sunday afternoon revelations. I’m not a profound man, or even a particularly intelligent one, but I pretend to be and I’m weary of the pretence. Seeing things with even one eye is brutal enough, probably worse than seeing with two because you miss bits of the obvious and the obscure: you fill in the blanks with imagination, and when your imagination is as limited as mine… 

Like the tornado, I seem to regurgitate much of what I swallow; I am a mess, a swirling, twirling, whooshing mess of hot air and television fuzz and screaming soundbites, too tired to make sense, too reactionary to draw helpful conclusions, too unoriginal to hit upon the truths behind the truths.

Apart from the one. The one above, the one I have seared into this doggrel, this dog’s dinner of a recounting, as far from the preciseness and vitality and genuine literacy of a letter or notebook entry from one of those Victorian epistolary narratives as possible. That truth’s an important one; if this Northern boy can’t tear the cover from both North Yorkshire and London as he once expected he could, then he can at least leave this little something to his fellow sufferers, alongside an extremely exotic encounter with the supernatural for paranormal researchers, armchair skeptics, and magicians who think they’re summat intellectually to pick over for the rest of eternity.

Disappointment, that’s the modern disease, the big one, the killer, with a body count you can’t even begin to tot up- much higher than that of a buzzing windy irritant. Some would say we all had our expectations set too high by someone or other- Hollywood, pop music, liberal-minded teachers in cotton- wool gloves, parents who spared the rod once too often, politicians who abolished child labour laws and the workhouses- but Christ, there has to be something more we can ask for than the manifestation of some daemon, house- sprite or vengeful Brownie to grant us sweet release from a life spent as meagre contributors to the pension fund of some unknown and unknowable bastard who is nothing more to us than the printed name at the bottom of yet another contract.

But right now, right now, the tornado seems to have offered salvation to others while refusing it to me. Think of how lovely it would be to cease to exist- or, rather, to have never existed at all and, as such, to not have to worry about being mourned or leaving behind a trail of destruction in your wake as you slip away. No broken hearts, no wet hankies, no stained eulogies that leave the speaker weak-kneed and trembling at the funeral pulpit: the guilt-free suicide we’ve so many of us desired at one time or another, and which I’ve spent most of my life quietly coveting. All I have to do is dream… all I can do is dream. For my little helper says no. And now, as if by command of the text, it is sinking away into the carpet again, and do I detect a nod of the head as a last mocking gesture, or have I finally lost it? Take me, Mr. Poltergeist, best of your kind. Oh well, maybe next time, eh? I’ve got nothing to do but wait. I’m not going anywhere. The house is already like a tomb, cold and echoing and empty. Days go past outside the windows: the school kids get in fights and throw fried chicken boxes in the flowerbeds, police cars fly up and down in the direction of the city, the withered oldies mutter curses under their breath as they navigate the cracked pavements, the off-licence puts the shutters up and down and opens and locks ups. None of it is worth a jot to me; the Spring can come and go in a second, and the Autumn can stretch on forever- time gets rather out of control when all you’re trying to do is make it pass. Hours become seconds, and minutes become days, with peaks and valleys within that seem both infinite and shallow as a drizzly day puddle. You live in a dream, and outside one too- just like I did in the old days. You don’t sleep, not properly, you just float in and out of the world for passages of time that bear no relation to the structured schedules of average everyday life. It’s wasting, it’s not living, but what is now? Come back Mr. Poltergeist, best of your kind, and take me.

Billy Stanton is a young working-class writer and filmmaker based in London, and originally from Portsmouth. His story ‘Screwfix’ was recently published in ‘New Towns’ (Wild Pressed Books). His short fiction has also appeared in Horla, The Chamber, Tigershark and (soon) Wyldblood magazines. His latest short film ‘Noli is currently in post-production. His blog can be found at: steelcathedrals.wordpress.com

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