Published in Black Static #20, this story was selected by Ellen Datlow for The Best Horror of the Year Volume Three. Ray Cluley‘s third story in the magazine, it is somewhat more plot driven and in your face than the previous issue’s ‘Beachcombing’.
The story is set in the future, though we’re not told when – ‘I don’t think anyone really knows what the year is these days anyway. The last one I remember is 2020.’ At some point an unspecified disaster has befallen humanity, bringing about the end of civilisation as we know it, and the survivors wander in the wreckage of a broken world, a dying race under constant attack by winged demons.
Our viewpoint character is Charlie, one of a group of travellers that consists of George, Frank and Jones. They encounter the giant Frances and the young girl Cassie, who he carries in a harness on his back, and circumstances force the six into an alliance when they are attacked by two demons and have to take shelter. Desperate to break out the humans attack the demons and in the ensuing firefight all but Charlie, Frances and Cassie are either killed or mortally wounded.
The three travel on together, until they come to a gas station with armed defenders, and Charlie betrays his companions in exchange for food.
Cluley writes the action scenes with real verve, the fight with the demons eventful and bloody, with graphic scenes of gore that the quiet and reflective ‘Beachcombing’ won’t have led the reader to expect, but never gratuitous. He is also superb at drawing his dramatis persona, each given distinguishing characteristics, shown either in their actions or by a few words that capture perfectly the essentials of who they are – Frank is the careless one, Jones the capable one and ‘George always acted like he was cool and calm, like some kind of movie hero’. Frances is defined by his great size and the contrast with his feminine name (‘Jones called him a walking Johnny Cash song’), while Charlie’s true nature is revealed by insinuation, casual comments that grow into their true meaning as the story plays its cards.
Cassie is a contradiction of sorts, a five year old girl who has seen things a child is not meant to witness, as with the scene in which she indifferently drags a corpse to its funeral pyre, and mechanically loads Frances’ guns for him as he fights. Frances has appointed himself her guardian, but the need for protection is not predicated solely on her tender age.
The demons are described vividly – ‘The claws, two big scoops where the hands should be, were a plum colour so dark it was almost black. She was the colors of dusk given fleshy form, hairless and vile’. In my mind’s eye I visualise them as somewhat similar to the harpies in Jason and the Argonauts, but more muscular and overtly antagonistic. They are repellent creatures, defined by their appetite for destruction, attacking any human and then feasting on dead flesh.
And yet the cruelty is not all one way, with man’s inhumanity given free rein. The first demon we encounter in the story is dead, its body pinned to a door ‘with knives, railroad spikes, and even a couple of forks’. It’s female, and George quips ‘”Nice tits”‘, a way of further objectifying and dehumanising the creature, and one the significance of which will become horribly apparent.
And so we get to the nub of the story, the need for a scapegoat for human sin that is as old as the Bible tale of Eve and the apple. All the demons are female (though Frances claims to have seen a male), and so the idea has taken root that women turn into demons, and to prevent this in many communities they are kept caged and tortured to hold the change at bay – ‘”You have to whip them,” the man with the tattoo explained. “It stops the wings from growing.”‘
As our travellers move through this blighted landscape they bear witness to men’s cruelty to women, finding ‘Penitent’ enclaves where women have been left chained to tables and starved to death – ‘”Places where women are kept prisoner,” Frances explained. “Sometimes by religious nuts, sometimes by men who are scared. Sometimes by those who just like an excuse to hurt women.”‘ This isn’t just a war against the demons, but also a war between the sexes.
This is why Frances feels the need to protect Cassie, and this is why Charlie betrays them. Because her real name is Charlotte and she is a woman hiding in the open, someone who has been used and abused by men and can no longer trust anyone – ‘It was only a matter of time before Frances saw me as a means to feed and clothe his adopted daughter, and who knew what he’d do to her once she got older.’ And, as far as that goes, Charlie/Charlotte is every bit as prone to rationalising inhuman behaviour as the men she fears.
The book ends with her physically safe, but suffering from guilt. The demons who come at night are not the winged marauders of the story, but Charlie’s own personal demons, and she beats her flesh with barbed wire not to prevent the growth of feathered pinions but to punish herself, because she knows the truth – ‘Not all women are demons, but some are.’
It’s a stigmata she appears reconciled to, with the story’s last words – ‘They come and they scream and they know me for what I am, and they know it’s not just a woman.’ Charlie has accepted male judgement of her worth, and in doing so inwardly become a fascimile of the thing they fear.
On the surface this story is a post-apocalyptic tale with enough gut wrenching action to appease the most jaded palate, but Cluley is not interested in gore for its own sake. In the society it portrays and the viewpoint character’s response to that society, it touches on the truth behind two of my favourite maxims from philosophy.
‘Man can ask for nothing more than to kill and feel righteous at the same time, the gratification of one’s lowest instincts in the service of one’s highest.’ – De Sade
‘He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.’ – Nietzsche