From the author: The Royal Occultist faces a murderous adherent of the Dionysian Mysteries.
“It was the Romans, Mr. St. Cyprian. It begins with them, as so many of these things do.” Dr. Briseus Bonneville spoke softly, as he gestured with the pistol in his hand. The Webley Army revolver was loaded, as was Dr. Bonneville. "Even here, in the waning days of the year of our lord nineteen and twenty, their influence can still be felt."
His words echoed oddly through the room. The bar of the Voyagers Club was only dimly lit, in accordance with club tradition. It was also empty, thanks to the boisterous greeting Dr. Bonneville had given Charles St. Cyprian upon his arrival – one gunshot and a shattered bottle of gin later, the room had cleared out.
Now club members were clustered out in the foyer, peering through the open doors with varying expressions of disgruntlement and fright. It wasn't the first time that a gun had gone off in the Voyagers Club, and it likely wouldn't be the last. Though, at the moment, St. Cyprian wished that the gun in question wasn’t aimed at him.
Bonneville leaned forward. "History, Mr. St. Cyprian...it weighs on the best of us." He was angular and uneven in the face, like a badly chipped flint knife, with moustaches and beard going the colour of slate. His eyes were a shade of yellow, shot through with red, that spoke of a faltering liver and too many sleepless nights. “Consider the ancient foundations upon which this very club was built. A temple, they said, at the time. But what sort of temple, and to which god, you might ask?”
“I didn’t,” St. Cyprian said, watching the barrel of the pistol. In contrast to Bonneville, St. Cyprian was tall and rangy with an olive cast to his clean shaven features and hair just a touch too long to be properly fashionable. His suit was a Savile Row original, several shades more expensive than Bonneville’s own. His own revolver sat nestled in the coat pocket of the aforementioned suit, but it might as well have been on the moon for all the good it did him. He had not expected his quarry to be armed, and in a club no less.
Indeed, he had not even truly known that Bonneville was his quarry, rather than merely another link in a bloody chain that stretched from the courtyards of the East End to the gentlemen’s clubs of the West. Three bodies – three women – murdered and mutilated, and certain...sigils left on nearby brickwork.
It was those sigils which had necessitated his intervention into the investigation. Such symbols, and what they represented, fell well within the remit of the offices of the Royal Occultist. It was, in fact, the very thing the office had been created to handle. And that made Dr. Bonneville his problem. Though St. Cyprian wasn’t sure just what sort of problem the doctor was, as yet.
Gallowglass, thankfully, was waiting outside the club. The situation was tense enough without his assistant waving her own revolver about. But it wouldn’t be long before she noticed that something had gone wrong. God alone knew what she would do then – hopefully something ingenious, but more likely something exceedingly violent and loud.
“Liber Pater,” Bonneville said, loudly. “Divine patron of the plebs, fornication and the grape!” The barrel of the Webley swiped through the air, as if for emphasis. “But the Romans – ah, the Romans – were great ones for extending the remit of religion, and gods bled into one another like the tributaries of some great cosmic river, in the Aventine and here in Londinium. Liber was soon Dionysius and Bacchus as well, father, drunkard and madman all in one.” He spread his hands. “And here we sit, in this city which is his temple.”
“Fascinating.” St. Cyprian tried not to flinch as the pistol whipped back in his direction. That explained the markings at the crime-scenes. Bonneville was a historian of Latin bent, and knew whereof he spoke, as far as gods went. That he was also a raving loony was unexpected. Then, the Dionysian Mysteries weren’t the sort of thing that one spent any time studying unless one were already slightly doo-lally.
But Bonneville wasn’t simply insane. St. Cyprian could feel something rising about, or perhaps from, the other man, flitting at the edges of his conscious mind. He felt as a hare must, as the fox closes in. Something was coming, something vast and terrible. He had no idea where it was coming from or what form it would take, save that it was centred on the disordered soul of Dr. Briseus Bonneville and that made him very nervous indeed. “Please, Dr. Bonneville, elaborate at your leisure.”
“I will, thank you.” Bonneville reached for the bottle of wine standing on the occasional table beside his chair. As he refilled his glass, he said, “A fine vintage. Are you sure that you won’t join me? A toast is in order, after all, given what I have accomplished, and will accomplish, this very evening.”
“Quite sure, thank you. No head for drink, what?”
“Ah, an Apollonian. I can tell, you see,” Bonneville said, conspiratorially. He gestured with the revolver in an alarming fashion, like a priest giving a blessing. “I can see the rigidity in you, my friend. All straight lines and rational angles. A brittle thing, your soul, and prone to breaking at the merest hint of excess. What can you know of the beautiful horrors I speak of? Of the grand terrors of the Dionysian initiations?”
“More than you might think,” St. Cyprian said.
Bonneville laughed. “I doubt that, my good chap. I alone dwell safely in the forests of the irrational.” He tapped the side of his head with the barrel of his pistol. “My mind is attuned to the Bacchic Mysteries. The secrets of wine and blood are mine, as they were to the Romans. Did you ever wonder why they gave grapes to the chosen sacrifices?”
St. Cyprian licked his lips. “I hadn’t, no.” He traced the sacred shape of the Voorish Sign on the arm of his chair with a finger and let his inner eye flicker open. The spirit-eye, some called it, though his acquaintances in the Society for Psychical Research insisted that it was merely a very focused form of extrasensory perception. Whatever it was, it had taken him several years to learn how to utilise it safely. As Bonneville spoke, St. Cyprian studied the man’s ka through his inner eye.
“Maenads, man,” Bonneville spat. “They were divine whores, the raving ones, the Thiasus, promised body and soul to Bacchus. Their blood, ripe with the fruits of carnality, was spilled to awaken the soul of this place. As I will awaken London, to stir it in its chains of smog, stone and steel!” Bonneville’s voice rose and his spirit blazed more brightly than any earthly fire. Within its coruscating depths...something moved.
A chill rippled down St. Cyprian’s spine as he watched it. He heard the maniacal skirl of ancient pipes and the clash of cymbals. Ghostly shapes writhed sinuously about the seated Bonneville, swaying and flickering in time to some hideous melody of which St. Cyprian was only able to comprehend the faintest echo. His tongue burned with the mingled taste of wine and blood, and he saw something looking out through Bonneville’s eyes, looking at him...
His inner eye slammed shut, hard enough to send a wave of pain rippling through his mind as he was abruptly wrenched back to reality. Bonneville had noticed nothing, and was still talking. “Blake knew, though he did not understand. And others besides, like Machen, Byron...Dionysians all.”
“And Jack the Ripper as well, I suppose.” St. Cyprian rubbed his aching head.
“Oh he was more than that,” Bonneville said. “He was the last of a storied line, I think. And I, his successor. The Romans were not as thorough as they might have liked, when they banned Bacchic cults. But the cults simply went underground, until Caesar resurrected them in order to placate the mob. The priesthood of Bacchus continued on, through famine, fire and flood, through the death-throes of one empire and the rise of another. But...this age...this pestilential age of choking smog and belching chimneys...” He shook his head. “It could not be borne. So I have conceived of a powerful ritual...the Magna Bacchanalia.”
“The Magna Bacchanalia, the Great Revelry,” Bonneville said, slopping wine on his trousers. “A rite to open the gates of men’s unconscious minds, to unleash the irrational and set London ablaze.” He shouted the last word, eliciting a stirring from the direction of the door. One of the club’s porters peered in, a worried expression on his face.
“Out!” Bonneville twisted around and snapped off a shot, mutilating a bust of Quatermain above the door. The porter retreated with a yell, as Bonneville whipped back around. St. Cyprian, half out of his chair, found himself nose-to-nose with the Webley. “Sit down sir. I was speaking of important matters.”
St. Cyprian sat back down carefully. “You were saying?” he said, politely. He wondered if Gallowglass had heard the shot. He hoped so. He could feel something rising in the air, as just before a storm. Bonneville was growing increasingly agitated.
“But the ritual, alas, was interrupted. I was prevented from completing that most sacred of rites by your meddling.” Bonneville spoke through gritted teeth, as if he were in pain. “So, it is your turn now. Tell me a tale. Tell me how you came to be on my trail.”
“That’s hardly of interest, I should think.”
Bonneville cocked the Webley. “I insist.”
“A ghost,” St. Cyprian said. The longer he kept Bonneville babbling, the longer he had to figure out some way out of the situation.
“A ghost, Dr. Bonneville. A spirit, a phantom, a poor benighted wraith, torn from this earth too soon by the blade of your knife.” St. Cyprian made to reach for his coat pocket, but paused. “Might I trouble you to allow me a last cigarette while I talk? Condemned man, and all that, what?”
“Fine, yes. But what do you mean, a ghost?”
“London is full of the dratted things, and many of them are quite chatty, if one has but the wit and wile to converse with them.” St. Cyprian pulled his cigarette case from his coat and extracted one. He stuffed it between his lips and lit a match with his thumbnail.
“Which you do,” Bonneville said, eyes narrowed.
“Obviously.” St. Cyprian puffed on his cigarette. He expelled smoke from his nostrils and smiled. “Otherwise, how could I have linked such savage murders with esteemed historian and lecturer, Dr. Briseus Bonneville?”
“Deductive reasoning,” Bonneville said. “Ratiocination, perhaps. You are an agent of the police, no doubt. Some Scotland Yard jack-in-office...”
“Come now, do I look like Sherlock Holmes?” St. Cyprian blew a plume of smoke into the air. “No Dr. Bonneville, I am only affiliated with the police in the loosest sense of the word. You did not allow me to finish my introductions earlier – I have the honour and distinction to be His Majesty's Royal Occultist." St. Cyprian paused for a beat. "Perhaps you've heard of me?"
Bonneville blinked. "No."
St. Cyprian's face fell. "No?"
"I'm sorry, no."
St. Cyprian sat back. "It's one of the oldest offices in Great Britain."
"I'm sure it is," Bonneville said.
"Created by good Queen Bess herself, and bestowed upon Dr. John Dee, for services rendered to the crown," St. Cyprian said. "Formed for the express purpose of investigating those occurrences deemed to be outside...the...remit of – oh dash it. Fine, no, never mind." He flipped a hand dismissively. "Fine, who cares? Where were we?"
"You were babbling about a ghost," Bonneville said.
"Yes," St. Cyprian said. "As I was saying, I simply asked the ghost of your latest ‘maenad’ who had done for her.”
“And she told you, did she?” Bonneville smirked.
“Well, yes, actually. What you did to Eleanor Caudwell was quite cruel." St. Cyprian spoke softly. Bonneville flinched.
For a moment, St. Cyprian saw the man within the Dionysian. Then Bonneville shook his head and gave a weak smile. ‘Murder is a tool of the last resort, I admit. But cruelty in good cause is no cruelty at all.”
"Ah, well, there you and I differ, I think," St. Cyprian said.
Bonneville hesitated. He cocked his head. "I was right then, wasn't I? If one such as you – Royal Occultist indeed – is here, then I am on the right path. The Magna Bacchanalia is close to culmination, and the thirsty London stones wait for but a single goblet more!" His voice rose in pitch, and his eyes shone with an ugly light. He pushed himself out of his chair, emptied his glass and hurled it to the floor.
He took aim at St. Cyprian with his pistol and touched his chest. “I can feel it building within me, my Magna Bacchanalia. I hear the flutes and pipes of Bacchus, growing louder with every drop of blood spilled.”
As he spoke, St. Cyprian leaned back into his chair. He could hear it as well – an arrhythmic keening, rising up from somewhere deep and wholly unpleasant. Bonneville had awakened something and whatever it was, it was beginning to stir in the shadows of reality.
It caught at him, like the claws of some great cat, plucking at his soul. In that instant, he wished to open his spirit-eye once more, and see the thing for what it truly was. To see it as Bonneville saw it, and give himself over to it.
The sound of a revolver being cocked brought him back to himself. He turned stiffly, eyes narrowed, and St. Cyprian followed his gaze. “You’re late,” he said.
“I was busy, wasn’t I?” A young woman, dark and slightly feral looking, wearing a man’s clothes and a battered flat cap resting high on her head, sat on the bar. There was a bottle of Schiedam balanced on her knee, and a Webley-Fosbery revolver extended before her. She aimed the weapon at Bonneville. “Drop the steel, or I drop you.”
“How the devil did you get in here?” Bonneville snarled.
She shrugged. “Sneaky, innit?”
“Miss Gallowglass is a master of the art of the unobtrusive sidle, and a champion creeper. Practically an alley cat in a flat cap.” St. Cyprian stubbed out his cigarette and stood. “You heard the gunshot?”
“Both of them. I rang the plods.” Gallowglass didn’t take her eyes off of Bonneville. “I said drop it.”
Bonneville shook his head. “I think not, my dear. I was wondering how I might extricate myself from this club, and seek out my final maenad, but here you are, reeking of gin.” He laughed and swung his pistol towards her, even as he reached into his coat. He fired, and St. Cyprian’s head throbbed as the unnatural music reached a crescendo. Whatever Bonneville had awoken now had its full attentions fixed on them.
Bonneville’s bullet chewed the bar as Gallowglass flung the bottle she’d been holding at him. He ducked and fired again. The bottle shattered against the wall. Gallowglass slid behind the bar. St. Cyprian clawed for the Webley in his pocket, and Bonneville twisted about, eel-quick. His hand emerged from his coat, holding a slim-bladed knife. He chopped down, catching the barrel of St. Cyprian’s revolver even as he raised it. The weapon was torn from his hand with stinging force. He stumbled back as Bonneville came after him with a leopard-scream.
“Oi, over here,” Gallowglass shouted, leaning over the bar. Her Webley-Fosbery roared, and Bonneville twisted with inhuman grace, the buttons on his waistcoat popping as he undulated like a dancer on a Minoan mural. He sped towards her, gun barking, driving her back. Bonneville tossed the empty weapon aside and flung himself onto the bar.
His knife swept out, shattering glass and popping corks, filling the air with the scent of alcohol. Bonneville moved like a man possessed, his arms stretching farther and faster than they ought, as he reached down and plucked Gallowglass from behind the bar and flung her to the floor on the other side. She landed in a heap, her pistol clattering from her hand. St. Cyprian moved to help her, but Bonneville got there first.
He jerked her to her feet, and encircled her neck with his arm, so that the edge of his blade pressed to her carotid artery. “We’ll call it a double-header, yes? Two for one.” Bonneville cackled as he pressed the blade tight against Gallowglass’ throat. “I shall open her up, and London with her. The Apollonian will give way to the Dionysian, and mankind will learn new ways to laugh, revel and kill!”
As Bonneville ranted, pale wisps of things clustered about him, like coiling wreaths of ivy. St. Cyprian realised with a chill that the insubstantial entities were where the other man’s strength was coming from. They inundated him, leeching from him, even as he took from them. Whatever they were – maenads, spectres, something else – they were hooked into him, battening on him. “I shall make of this world a red Shambhala,” Bonneville said.
“Or maybe you’ll hang,” St. Cyprian said. His hands clenched uselessly as he stared at the knife pressed to his assistant’s throat. Bonneville was too fast – too strong. Nevertheless, he had to try. “Either way, I don’t think I’ll give you that chance.” He lunged forward and Bonneville instinctively slashed out at him. Gallowglass’ foot came down on his instep and he howled. He shoved her aside and swept his blade out, tearing a strip from St. Cyprian’s waistcoat as the latter stumbled back.
“Can you hear it? The clash of knives, the wet rip of parting flesh, the skirl of pipes,” Bonneville hissed, his eyes starting from their sockets. “I hear the screams, even as the others must have. Bacchus spoke to them, in those red moments, even as he speaks to me. Can you hear it – the sound of the Great Revelry to come?”
St. Cyprian could, though he dearly wished otherwise. The whole room was shaking. The remaining bottles behind the bar trembled and shifted, and the glasses clattered. He could hear snatches of wild laughter and that same abominable music as before, only louder now. More pale things flowed through the walls and wavered in the light, twisting, moving dancing. Not all of them were human-shaped. Amidst the music he caught sounds like the snarling of great cats or the squealing of pigs.
Bonneville moved through this sea of phantoms like a sleepwalker, dancing along with them, his knife flickering down, almost faster than St. Cyprian’s eye could follow. “Can you see them?” Bonneville cried. “The Raving Ones come, thirsty for blood of the grape, the wine of the body!”
St. Cyprian backed away from the slashing blade, hands raised. The spirits clung to Bonneville like a cloak, dragged in his frenzied wake. He was all manic stretched grin and staring eyes now. The pale things cavorted about him, or clustered about the shattered bottles and spilled liquor, as if they were thirsty. And maybe they were.
Inspiration struck. He looked past Bonneville and saw Gallowglass scrambling for her pistol. “The bottles,” he said, “Shoot the bottles behind the bar.”
Gallowglass looked at him, and then, revolver in hand, began to fire at the bar. Bottles burst, and liquor slopped across the bar and floor. Bonneville turned, eyes bulging, nostrils flaring. Gallowglass backed away from him, reloading her revolver.
Bonneville staggered after her, the spirits clustered about him stretching ghostly fingers towards the dripping wines and gins. While he was distracted, St. Cyprian snatched up his pistol and took aim. Something snarled in warning and Bonneville whirled, teeth bared in a monstrous grimace. “Thirsty,” he grunted, in a voice too deep to be human.
“Well, have a bloody drink on me, then,” Gallowglass said, from behind the bar. As she spoke, she flung a bottle at the floor in front of Bonneville. It bounced and rolled across the carpet. Quickly, she threw two more. St. Cyprian fired at one of the bottles, shattering it. Bonneville fell upon it like a man dying of thirst, stuffing dripping shards of glass into his distended mouth. Blood and alcohol mingled as they dripped into his beard.
The spirits of blood and wine were flocking thickly about him now, nuzzling his bloody mouth or slurping silently at the floor, becoming more substantial as they did so.
St. Cyprian picked up one of the remaining bottles, opened it and emptied it in a wide circle around the distracted Bonneville. As he did so, the abominable cacophony swelled, nearly deafening him. As before, something in it called to him, and part of him – the part he kept locked away – yearned to answer. To cast aside the Apollonian and embrace the Dionysian.
Instead, he snatched up the remaining bottle and tossed it up over Bonneville’s bent head. As it arced up, he snapped off a shot, shattering the bottle. Its contents rained down over Bonneville and he reared back with a swinish grunt. His flesh bubbled and bulged obscenely, as if something were growing within him and his eyes had become black pits of abhuman lust. The ghostly things crouched around him like eager supplicants, and they too were changing. St. Cyprian could almost see their faces now, though he dearly wished he couldn’t. “I’m sorry,” he said, as he stretched out his hand.
Bonneville staggered to his feet. He opened his bloody mouth, as if to speak. St. Cyprian gave him no chance. His spirit-eye wasn’t the only trick in his psychic tool-bag; there were others, some more useful than others. More dangerous. He snapped his fingers, and a spark of ectoplasmic heat and flame leapt from him, to fall into the alcohol.
A circle of fire rose up with a roar, caging Bonneville – the thing wearing Bonneville’s face – and driving him back. As he raised his arms, his alcohol soaked hair and clothes caught fire, and a high, shrill keening rose from his ragged lips, or perhaps from the spectres which burned with him. Bonneville hunched forward, engulfed in flames, clawing at himself. The heat and stink of burning meat filled the room.
St. Cyprian reached out, straining against the hunger of the fire. He’d called it up, kindled it from the heat of his ka, and could snuff it as easily, but controlling it was harder than either. It wasn’t in the nature of fire to be controlled, as he’d learned to his cost more than once. He fought against it, keeping it from spreading beyond the circle he’d made for it. The skin on his hands and face flushed red and his hair began to smoulder.
He muttered the calming mantras he’d learned from a Tibetan lama of his acquaintance. Aside from having what St. Cyprian considered an unhealthy fascination for the color green, the lama had been a good teacher. He could no longer see Bonneville amidst the blaze. And the cacophony had fallen silent. Whatever had been in him had retreated, slipping out of the world back into the outer shadows it had emerged from.
St. Cyprian brought his hands together slowly, and the flames began to die down. Sweat covered his face and stung his eyes. His body ached, as if he’d been stricken with sunstroke. The fire fought him, resisting his attempt to snuff it. And part of him – perhaps the same part that yearned to join the revels Bonneville spoke of – almost allowed it. “Back...in the box...you go,” he hissed, as his palms slapped together. All at once, the fire vanished. And so too had Bonneville
All that was left of him was a greasy pile of ash on the floor and a circular soot stain on the ceiling above. Amid the ashes something gleamed wickedly – Bonneville’s blade. St. Cyprian staggered forward and picked it up. As he did so, he could hear a skirl of distant pipes and a chill raced through him. Gone, then, but not far.
He sank into a chair near the bar with Gallowglass’ help. “You look proper done in,” she said. She glanced at the charred circle. “Been awhile since you’ve done that.”
“Yes, well, it leaves me feeling like a bit of used lettuce afterwards,” he said shakily. He held up the blade. Despite the heat, it still retained its unnatural sheen. It felt heavy in his hand, and for a moment, the piping grew louder. Within the music – a promise. “I say, do you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Gallowglass looked at him quizzically.
He shook his head and drove the knife into the floor. The music faded. But it did not go away. Not entirely. Perhaps it never would.
“Nothing,” he said, after a moment. “Nothing at all.”
This story originally appeared in Pulpwork Press Summer Special 2018.
Jazz Age Britain is rife with the impossible. Fashionable unwrapping parties awaken the dead. Ghouls stalk the Underground. Krampus steals the sinful. Famous magicians are kidnapped by shadows. Only the Royal Occultist can set these right.
Note: Curious Fictions may receive a commission if you purchase through Amazon.