Kenneth O’Brien

The August Editor's Pick Writer is Kenneth O'Brien

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by Kenneth O’Brien

They came at night while he was asleep.

They were unwilling to reveal themselves but he knew they were there. He could smell their unworthy spirits. They were vermin.

They infested the walls of the old house as persistently and pervasively as the dry rot that ate away at the supporting timbers. They swarmed like cockroaches through his dreams, scavenging morsels from his soul as his mind slept, exposing him to thoughts he strove to keep buried in the darkest parts of his brain. They tugged at the strings of his nightmares as if he were a mere puppet, only to scurry for cover when he exposed them to the full light of his wakefulness.

The ghosts had driven him almost to despair but now things would change. Now, he had found a way to take back control. He had the machine.

Henry London wiped his forehead and glanced over the apparatus one last time. Everything was ready.

Holding his breath, Henry pulled the switch and immediately backed away from the large machine as it flashed into operation. A humming noise emanated from the dark orifice at the middle of the latticework of steel, conduit, pipes and tubing. Then, a blue-white light began to glow within the black centre. At first it was nothing more than a tiny speck but gradually it gained in size and luminosity.

He shaded his eyes, licked his lips in anticipation, and felt a trickle of cold perspiration crawl down his temple. The initial surge of power caused the machine’s growing incandescence to overwhelm the dull orange glow of the tungsten bulb hanging from a grimy cord in the basement roof. The sound also increased in pitch and volume and the air filled with shrieks and howls, as if London had tapped into the misery of every tormented soul in Hell.

As it moved up to its optimum power band, the invention began to vibrate, causing dust to fall from corners and crevices in the walls and ceiling. The shuddering flowed through the floorboards and into his feet, traveling up the bones of Henry’s body until his teeth began to chatter.

Cables that hung from the construct like the strands of a metallic web began to oscillate and it seemed to Henry as if his creation were alive. He glanced around the basement and wondered if the old house would take the strain.

Then he allowed himself a knowing smile. It didn’t matter. Some things were more important. The house could crumble into dust for all he cared—just as long as the machine kept on working until it served its purpose.

Eventually, the shuddering lessened, the light from the machine dimmed and the ancient, ruddy luminosity of the bulb took precedence once more. The noise also subsided, becoming something akin to a manic whispering of half-familiar names in his ears.

His invention had reached equilibrium, ready to change his world.

The construction had consumed his every waking moment for months. He’d scoured every scrap yard and junk shop for parts. He’d broken into railway sidings and ripped out heavy cabling. He’d stolen switches, valves and tools from hardware shops. He’d even bypassed the main fuse board in his house, eager to feed his invention with all the electricity it could consume. There were no fuses or circuit breakers to hinder its hunger for power and no limit to the joy Henry experienced in its initial flash of life. But would it be strong enough to do what he required of it?

Anticipation filled his heart and his legs trembled. To steady himself, he thrust his hand against a rough, timber strut that had once been the part of a frame supporting a long-gone dry wall. He ignored the pain as the ragged point of an old nail pierced his palm.

Nothing must distract him. Now was the moment of redefinition.

The answer had come to him in a dream. The ghosts of the first ones, the originals, lived in his nightmares where they tormented, taunted, scolded and mocked him.

Lately, they had become bolder and sometimes, when he was distracted, tried to invade even his waking moments. He fretted for hours, frantically searching his thoughts for a way to regain control and, finally, it was as if God had spoken to him, telling him to build the machine. Not only would he be back in charge of the originals but they would also be the key to his salvation.


Henry awoke the next morning, fresh with new purpose, able to shrug off the previous night’s dream haunting, and ready to do his work. The frenzy of invention and construction took hold, and the urge to kill within his heart heightened. He was about to reinvent himself and rid himself of the tormentors.

He pondered his existence as he worked on the machine, ultimately grasping where he had gone wrong. It was possible to evolve too far. He understood that now.

He had grown beyond the early fledgling killer that had once stalked the dark streets with clarity and purpose. He had long passed the perihelion of his murderous intent, becoming a jaded caricature of what he was meant to be. He had succumbed to custom and habit.

Only his few original acts had truly meant anything of substance, and that was why they had begun haunting his unconscious thoughts. The others, the later ones, were simply the result of monotony of the worst kind. They meant nothing. They were pathetic and could be discarded. 

But, somehow, he had to regain what he had lost along the way. He needed to get back to basics. He needed to devolve and his supernatural enemies were the key.

It had been weeks since he’d seen another human face but that would soon change. Henry London knew that, for now, loneliness was a consequence of his work but it was anathema to him. All his life he’d been on his own, abandoned by his father, put into the care of his brothers by his alcoholic mother.

Why could he not have the happy life that others had? Why was he so unworthy? As a young boy, Henry had learned that it was possible to be alone even when surrounded by people. But soon he would be encircled by people who would love and worship him. They would have no choice this time.

The only thing of value he’d ever gained from his miserable life was the inheritance of the old family house. It was in a serious state of disrepair when he took ownership. The walls needed a fresh coat of paint, the roof leaked in places, many floorboards were rotten and the heating didn’t work anymore. It wasn’t much but it had become a place he could work from when he was in his killing phase. It was a base of operations as he searched the adjacent neighbourhoods for suitable victims. Now, it would become a shrine to his changing and the great machine would be the altar of his rebirth.

The construct began to glow. Blue streaks of lightning arced between electrodes and Henry’s tongue tingled. He caught the taste of something acrid as the electrified air filled with ozone. In the centre of the machine, the edges of the illuminated orifice became more defined. A window was forming, an intense blue-white perimeter encompassing a dark blood-red heart.

Henry, body stiff with apprehension, waited. When the first screaming spirit emerged from the portal, he clapped his hands, eyes bright with triumph. He was back in control. He’d forced the phantoms to manifest at his will and now they would be his to do with as he saw fit. The tormentors would become the tormented.

“Welcome,” he called in a mocking tone. “Welcome to you all!”

Soon, more phantoms entered through the portal and they began to circle the air above his head, their pale forms merging to create an unholy moaning maelstrom. A tingle of fear ran through Henry’s spine as he reached out and stretched his fingers into the swirling ghosts, convinced that he could actually touch the spectres’ frustrated malevolence. He laughed and curled his fingers into a fist when he felt nothing. The final victory belonged to him.

“Go!” he cried. “I command you to find yourselves and then come back to me!”

With a howl of despair that set his teeth on edge, the supernatural visitors broke away from the vortex and disappeared into the walls of the old house.

The machine sputtered, issued a few final sparks and fell silent. Henry stood alone in the basement under the dim orange glow of the single light with only his ragged breathing and the smell of melting plastic for company.

A feral smile cut across his face. “Success,” he hissed. He looked to the ancient ceiling. “Success!” he cried again. Soon, they would return to him and life would begin anew.


The old house groaned and the boards of the basement creaked. His first few kills— the originals— were in the house, and they were coming back to him.

This was what he wanted. This was what he needed. He could kill them all over and over again and finally rediscover himself. He would watch the reconstituted love for him reflected in their eyes as he plunged the knife into their necks. They would weep with gratitude as he held them tenderly, watching their life slip away for as many times as he wished. It would be Paradise and he would be a benign god. That first sweet taste of death would be his once more and he would savor it forever.

Nails popped and skittered across the floor as planks were pushed upwards, revealing skeletal hands laced with the remnants of flesh, muscle and tendon. Then whole bodies appeared as half a dozen creatures—with scraps of tattered skin hanging from their frames like old rags—rose from the cavity left by the discarded planks of wood. With pitiless black eye sockets and bony jaws set in an evil grin, they shambled towards their summoner.

Henry looked on in dismay. They were supposed to come back as they had been before they died, not as rotten cadavers.

“No!” he cried. “This isn’t right.” He held his hands out to the decrepit monstrosities shambling towards him. “Stop!”

The walking corpses ignored his command.

“You should be whole, real people who can love me!” he cried. “You should be compliant! I should be in charge! How can I kill you when you’re like this? You’re still dead! You’re supposed to be alive!”

The ghostly creatures edged closer. Realization struck Henry. He was to be their victim.

He backed away, glancing at the machine. If only he could reach it, make some adjustments, reboot it and try again. But it was too late. They were almost upon him and all he could do was run.

He bolted for the cellar door, slammed it shut behind him and placed his back against the wood as he felt the monstrosities pounding against the soft pine. The door wasn’t going to hold.

Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves, he pushed away from the door and bounded up the stairs. The door at the top had a lock. Maybe that would hold them?

They were already through the cellar door and heading for the stairs by the time he slid the bolt across to secure the entrance at the top of the staircase. A few seconds later, the pounding began once more.

He watched in alarm as the door began to splinter and break. It wasn’t going to last. Where were they getting the strength? He almost laughed at the absurdity of the question. It was the strength of vengeance. When he brought them back, he never considered that these monsters might have their own malign agenda.

As the door at the top of the stairs began to give, Henry instinctively backed away. He needed time to think, to find a way to get back in control. It was only when the angry corpses broke through that he spotted his mistake. They were between him and the front door. He was trapped inside the house.

“Idiot! Why didn’t you run while you could?” 

The answer came to him: Because they would have followed.

He cried and slapped himself violently in the face. Terror quickly replaced anger as the shambling monstrosities with bony fingers clawed at him. Adrenalin gave him the strength he needed to tear free from their cold clutches and he swiftly sidestepped the creatures, slamming the bathroom door behind him as he dived for cover.

He placed the whole weight of his body against the fragile barrier and heaved a ragged breath as the pounding start once again. How long could he survive? What of his plan? It’s useless, he finally realized. God had tricked him when He’d spoken in his dream.

At that moment, a white ceramic tile fell from the wall and shattered into numerous pieces on the floor. It was quickly followed by another tile and then yet another.

The partition began to bulge, spitting lathe, plaster and broken ceramics, and Henry remembered where he had hidden his very first victim…the first of the originals.

Dry dust and mortar had dealt efficiently with the bodily moisture, and what struggled to emerge from the binding material was a desiccated creature with most of its features still recognizable. Long wisps of dark hair still clung to the leather-like preserved skin of the skull.

 “Mother,” he whimpered. “It’s you.”

The animated corpse finally broke free from the restraints of the partition and lunged at him with broken teeth and nothing but hunger in its dead, black eyes.

“Oh Mother!” Henry cried in an amalgam of ecstasy and pain as the creature bit into the soft tissue of his neck. “See how worthy I am? I brought you back from the dead!”

In the exquisite agonies that accompanied the slow consumption of his flesh, Henry London knew that he would never be alone again.

Kenneth O’Brien lives in Scotland and  has had stories previously published in Kzine, 9 Tales Told In The Dark, The Horror Zine, Dark Moon Digest and Kraxon Magazine. When not writing, he usually spends his time playing and recording music, or  cycling through the beautiful countryside of his native East Lothian.