The following is a demon possession story with an unconventional outcome, a pitch black horror adventure with a whole lot of comedy.
I’ve written about how I’d like to see a fresh take on the exorcism genre and how I’d like to see my favorite exorcist, John Constantine, depicted on TV. Here’s an original short story that hits both birds with the same stone. It doesn’t matter if you’re fans of the comic, the show, the movie, or if this your first introduction to the character; this piece stands on its own.
John Constantine in: Gambling with Souls
Ravenscar had been remodeled since my last bout of electroshock. The patients’ wing had been done up like a walk-in candy cane. The hall was a spiral of blood, streaking across the floor, up the wall, arching over the ceiling, then back down again. This paint job must’ve taken muscle, a steady hand, and a cadaver.
The hall stunk like a thawed out, abandoned meat locker. The smell intensified with every step, but the spiral beckoned me forward, a red carpet leading to the room at the end.
The door was ajar, daring me to step inside.
Fishing my phone out of my pocket, I set the flash to ON. Holding it into the unit, a chill moved down my wrist. Taking a snapshot, the flash revealed something at my feet. Recoiling, I felt the chill pass in an instant. Flicking my lighter across my thigh, I examined the threshold.
Turns out, I wasn’t the first mage in Dr. Huntoon’s rolodex. These sigils were drawn by an artist, someone versed in the mediums of salt, mirror shards and mercury. This was hybrid magic, a fusion of fringe spiritualism and esoteric witchcraft. It’s not unusual to find an etching of the Eye of Horus at the scene of a paranormal event, but it’s rare to find it accompanied by a nose and a mouth. This had Zed’s finger prints all over it.
Zed was a budding sorceress, rebelling against her evangelical upbringing by sticking her nose into these sorts of things. We’ve been riding each others coat tails ever since we ceased being an item.
Whatever lurked behind door number one hadn’t given me frostbite, Zed’s ward did. It was overkill, like using an EMP to take out the enemy’s communications, only to find you’ve disabled all of your weapons systems. This was arse about a face. Sure, it put up borders around bewitchments, but it was kryptonite for conjurers.
Here I was with a trench coat lined with magical trinkets. One step forward would render them useless, putting me at the mercy of Ravenscar’s latest tenant.
Ducking into the hall, I unloaded my arsenal. Pendants, potions, pentacles, rings, relics, runes, incense, ironweed, and insect repellant. What can I say? When I go in blind, I like to keep my options open.
The only things I kept in my pockets were a phone, a zippo, a pack of Silk Cuts, a tin filled with business cards, and a bottle of OxyContin I’d nicked from the doctor’s private stash. You know, the essentials.
Peeking at my phone, I saw what I’d expected: a tall lump beneath a sheet on the mattress. Expanding the image, I noticed something that didn’t sit right. If this was the bed, where were the pillows?
Pushing the door open, I felt Zed’s invisible fencing suck the magic from my skin.
“House keeping.” My voice echoed off the walls. It was a familiar sound, almost comforting, like coming home.
The lump under the covers remained frozen. My gaze followed the blood trail to a pair of legs beneath the bed frame: white orderly pants stained rusty brown. There were teeth marks at the ankles, exposing the Achilles’ tendon. Flies had colonized the bed. Here I left my insect repellant in the hall. The sheets dripped with black, brown, and yellow sludge. Whatever was living in here was nesting.
I wondered if Zed was so gobsmacked with the presentation, that she opted to just lock the bugger in.
Screwing a cigarette into my lips, I lit it up and took a puff, paying close attention to the direction the fire was leaning. Fire is attracted to two things, oxygen and demons. Let’s just say this flame wasn’t stretching for the door frame.
Clipping the zippo to my sleeve, I rolled my shoulder, cracking my neck to conceal my movements. Waving the cancer stick like a conductor, I hoped the ember would hold my audience’s attention. Inhaling as much as I could, I blew a smoke cloud overhead. Adjusting my coat, there was nothing up my sleeve, not even an arm. My fingers were up near my collar, ready to catch whatever life had to throw at them.
Reaching for the comforter with my free hand, I found a corner that had yet to be tainted by bodily fluids. Tearing the sheet away, I tilted my head straight up. I already knew where the pillows had gone. Raising my arm through my collar, I caught my attacker as she came down.
She fell right into my grasp. I flung her into her stuffed stand in. The pillows scattered. She landed on all fours, a cat with perfect balance. Her gown dripped with the same septic sap that oozed over the bed frame. You’d think smoking since primary school might spare my nose the smell. It didn’t.
The tenant smiled, revealing a face full of talons, claws in place of canines, a fine piece of skeletal transmogrification if I’d ever seen one. Her eyes were milky white. Her veins had turned black.
Digging her nails into the mattress, spittle seeped from her teeth. “Why can’t we read your mind?”
What is it with lesser demons and the royal we?
Shrugging, I took a puff, exhaling through my nostrils. “Because you’re illiterate.”
Zed might not have exorcized this demon, but at least she’d rendered it mind blind.
The tenant rubbed its eyes. “We read Dr. Huntoon’s mind. Did you know he has an ongoing fantasy about reviving Carl Jung’s sexual therapy? He longs to help push his patient’s traumatic memories down, deep down inside,” she cackled, “over and over again.”
I shrugged. “That’s just a lucky guess.”
The tenant shift her weight from shoulder to shoulder, a predator primed to pounce. “Are you one of his, or did your condition bring you to us like a moth to a flame? Maybe you suffer from some kind of savior complex? Either way, we can make the hurting stop.”
I chuckled, “‘Savior’ is not a word I hear that often.”
“So you’re not some Papist come to play Jesus?” The tenant squint, sizing me up with empty eyes.
I blew a smoke ring, “Nope,” I waved the nub of my filter. “although my meat suit does have the same initials.”
The tenant’s head cocked to the side, shaking like a maraca. “Your meat suit?”
Flicking the filter, I reached into my coat. “Oh yes, his name is John Constantine. John Constantine!” I flung a handful of business cards at her. “It would be remiss of me to rob him of a branding opportunity while he’s away.”
Leaning forward, the tenant’s hair fell into her teeth like floss. Her head bobbed up and down, tracing my aura from the floor to the ceiling.
The tenant shook her head, casting off dandruff. “If you’re really wearing this Constantine, why aren’t there any stretch marks? Why is their color in his cheeks? Why can we still see the light in his eyes?”
I pointed to her “There are puppeteers” then I pointed to myself, “and then there are ventriloquists. You know what you are.”
The tenant nodded. Pigs squealed in the bowels of her throat.
“We’re the devil.”
She spat brimstone at my feet, it sizzled on the tile, but I didn’t flinch.
I reached into my trench coat. The tenant perked up in a painful looking yoga pose. Its elbows bent the wrong way. Its bones stretched the skin. Her flesh was ready to rip right open.
Rolling my eyes, I tapped my phone. The tenant’s forked tongue tasted the air. I raised a finger, signaling for the demon to hold on a second, before flipping the screen to face her.
It was on a freeze frame from The Exorcist. It featured young Regan tied to her bed, skin pealing, her pajamas covered in pea soup. I tapped play.
Regan’s demon voice shouted, “The devil!”
Setting the phone back in my pocket, I ran my fingers through my hair. “Linda Blair circa 1977. There was an actress, you on the other hand, I’m not impressed with. Who’s your agent?”
The tenant smirked, giggled to itself, a child busted for lying. “Why does a fellow traveler need to know our name?”
I cracked my knuckles. “I don’t want your name, you walked into someone else’s home and started eating their food. Your name is Goldilocks. I want the name of the one who told you where to find the free lunch. Give me that and I’ll leave you with a limb to limp home on.”
Smiling, Goldilocks’s jaw sagged, like melted putty, revealing a second row of teeth behind the talons. Leaning forward, she was primed to bite my head off. “Oh, you’d be so merciful.”
She snapped at my ear, grazing the skin, ran her nose across my forehead, sniffed my brow, then snapped at the other one. I’d been knighted by demon. Blood trickled down my earlobe. She’d barely pierced the skin, but the pain was fleeting.
I grit my teeth. “The limb offer is off the table. Cooperate and I won’t reroute your intestines to fill your genitals with bile,” I shrugged, “or don’t cooperate, I’m feeling creative tonight.”
Rolling her head back, Goldilocks spewed a geyser of oil at the ceiling, spreading an inkblot across the tiles. Exhaling, Goldilocks elbows bent back into place, she fell into a heap on the mattress.
Lightning flashed. Thunder struck. Squealing pigs echoed down the hall behind me. I lit another Silk Cut and checked the time.
“Doctor?” Goldilocks’s voice had lost its bite, she sounded human. “Who’s that under the bed? What’s wrong with his leg? Why isn’t he moving? Oh my God, is he?…”
This was Angie. The wee lass Dr. Huntoon thought might benefit from my unique approach to therapy.
Angie backed into the wall, huffing and puffing, panic wrought. “You’re not Dr. Huntoon. Who are you? Are you real?”
“I try to be.” I swat the flies out of my face.
The air was thick. It stunk of rotten eggs and charred cinder. A clammy sensation traveled from the small of my back, up my spine, coiled around my neck, and settled on my scalp.
Sucking down my Silk Cut, I gave the poor girl my best poker face. In a game with stakes this high, empathy is the enemy.
“Is it gone? Did you get rid of it?” Angie’s gaze followed the claw marks on the ceiling.
Sweat dripped down my face, pooled in my palm with a white sticky residue. It smelt like hair product. I felt my spikes to find they’d drooped down into bangs.
“Is it safe?” Angie dipped her foot on the floor.
Grabbing her wrist, I checked her forearms for black tracks, ink bubbles riding the ventricles.
She did as instructed. Her tongue was solid again. Her teeth had returned to normal. Her gums showed signs of gingivitis, but that’s not my area of expertise.
Prying her eye open, I checked her iris for signs of dilution, but it was something in her pupil that demanded my attention. Seeing my reflection, I spotted a row of fingers on my forehead, bat claws digging into the skin.
“He’s still here.”
Spinning on my heel, I scanned the room for reflective surfaces. Zed had to have gotten those shards from somewhere. There were mirrors on both sides of the wardrobe, one had been shattered, while the other was still intact. Stepping into view, I got a good look at the monkey on my back.
The little bugger looked like an abstract artist’s interpretation of a demon: an emaciated monkey’s body, with a ribcage so sunken it left no room for lungs. Goldilocks’s shoulder-blades were so pronounced they cut through his skin. He had lopsided bat ears, talons for teeth, and the contours of a man’s head.
A crown of bone jut out from a wet gash in his scalp, bleeding down his face like a mask.
His tail hung between my legs with links of exposed vertebras, wagging with amusement. Goldilocks was having himself a piggyback ride. If he’d suspected a vacancy in me, he’d have slipped inside already. He was testing me.
Angie dug into her gown, watching the shadows for signs of movement. “He’s been following me since I burned down the chapel. It wasn’t until you came along that I realized he was the Devil.”
I chuckled, blowing secondhand smoke at Goldilocks’s perch on my back. “A demon calling himself the devil is like a clerk calling himself the manager. Lesser demons invoke the name to inflate their stature. This mug is just a common imp trying to live beyond its means, using the majestic plural to compensate for something.”
I felt Goldilocks’s claws dig into my skull, stopping just short of my brain. I had to drive it back into Angie if I was ever going to stand a chance.
Taking a deep breath, I said, “He’s an enforcer sitting in the boss’s chair, a tapeworm pretending to be a python, a barnacle on a whale’s back, thinking it’s the king of the ocean. It has no grand ambitions, no role in the apocalypse. It’s up here hiding, soiling its knickers at the thought of being dragged back to hell.”
That got the weight off my shoulders.
Angie’s eyes rolled into her skull. She arched her back, cracking it. Lightning flashed. Her shadow transformed. Spikes shot out of her lips again.
Shaking the pack of Silk Cuts, I realized I was down to the last one, the final link in a chain of smokes.
Goldilocks crawled forward, staring me down with empty eyes. “Who are you?”
Puffing on the Silk Cut between us, I let the embers flare. “I’m the one whose porridge you’re gobbling. Since Ravenscar was established, I’ve peaked in, nibbling on an obsessive compulsive here, a paranoid schizophrenic there, never taking more than I needed, never announcing my presence. Then you came along and shined a big bright light on my operation. Now my buffet is at an end. Soon they’ll have priests on retainer, buckets of holy water in every doorway, and crucifixes as far as the eye can see.”
Goldilocks’s tongue shift from cheek to cheek, then from eye socket to eye socket. “If that’s so, then we’ll step out of your way. You can have this one’s soul, our treat. We’ll stand guard as you suck it dry.”
Goldilocks raised a finger, “But if you can’t, if you’re not the demon your swagger says you are, then we reserve the right to pick your meat puppet clean.”
I nodded, “Deal.”
Flicking her wrist, Goldilocks slammed the door behind me. When I turned back from the sound, I found Angie scurrying away.
Goldilocks had called my bluff.
Tears streaked down Angie’s cheeks. “Just make it quick. The things it shows me… The things it wants me to do…to people I care about… I can’t go back.”
A breeze passed through Angie’s hair. The strands hung in the air. This time Goldilocks wanted me to know exactly where he was standing.
I could’ve grabbed a shard of mirror, sliced Angie’s throat, and hoped that Goldilocks would sod off out of it, but that would be a draw and I was looking for a win. That’s when I remembered the prescription in my pocket.
Sighing, I put my hand on Angie’s shoulder. “The only way to spare you from his torment is to transfer ownership. His is the realm of venial sins and mine is the realm of mortal ones.”
I pointed to her, “Mala Prohibata,” then to myself “Mala in Se. He deals in sins that are forbidden by man, like playing with matches. I deal in sins that are forbidden by the divine.”
Cupping my hands around Angie’s, I left her with the bottle of OxyContin.
“He will fragment your personality from your memory, turn one aspect against the other, until your soul is a snake eating its own tail. You will devoir yourself. He’s a petty demon. He doesn’t collect souls, he collects tragic outcomes. You’re just another notch on his belt.”
I pointed to the pills. “Come with me and I will hurt you. I will devastate you beyond your comprehension, but I will let you retain a semblance of your identity. This I promise you.”
Angie struggled with the childproof lid. “Who are you?”
My smile flattened. “The true lords of hell do not go by names. We go by numbers, and I my dear, am the first of the fallen.”
If I couldn’t sell the lie to Goldilocks, I’d have to sell it to his target audience.
Angie muttered a prayer.
I shook my head. “With everything you’ve done? No. God’s turned a blind eye and a deaf ear. Your damnation is a foregone conclusion, but you still have a choice in which hell you’re going. Go with Goldilocks, and he’ll pass you around the prison. Go with me, and you’ll be mine alone.”
I practically put the capsules in her mouth myself.
She swallowed them down, and the staring contest began. While Angie searched my eyes for traces of humanity, I searched her hairline for signs of movement. Angie was Goldilocks’s link to the land of the living. Would he go down with the ship or wait for another to come along?
As Angie’s eyelids shut, her hair went limp. I felt Goldilocks’s demon grip on my shoulders. All he had to do was slip into my scalp, possess my body, and he would’ve won, two souls for the price of one. Instead, he leapfrogged over me, looking for a place to hide until the next sad sap wandered in.
The wardrobe creaked.
Walking backward, I cracked my knuckles. Turning to face the mirror, I saw Goldilocks in the reflection, gnashing his teeth, his forehead perpetually bleeding. We stared at each other head on. He won that contest. I couldn’t help but wink.
“Here’s to seven more years of this.” I drove my fist into the mirror. It shattered, trapping the little bastard there.
Leaping onto the bed, I felt Angie’s neck for a pulse. It was fading, worse still she was barely breathing. There were only a few capsules left in the bottle, but I’d underestimated their effect. Gambling with Angie’s life, I delivered her soul to the genuine first of the fallen, tossing her out of the frying pan and into the volcano.
Scooping Angie up, I carried her across Zed’s invisible fence. Panicking, I ran past my arsenal of enchantments. I had one last option.
Kicking the door open, I announced our presence.
The electroshock chair was already occupied. The patient seized up in the throes of his session.
A nurse shot up from behind him. “We’re in the middle of a procedure!”
Laying Angie’s lifeless body on the floor, I said, “So am I.”
Plucking the electrodes from the patient’s head, I made a makeshift defibrillator. Cranking the dials up past I eleven, I yelled, “Clear!”
When Angie came to, she spent the first few minutes staring daggers at me. Even after they fit her with an I.V. full of Buprenorphine, she kept her gaze fixed.
“So, are we in hell?” She asked.
I gave her a so-so gesture. “Not exactly.”
She exhaled, filling the air with tension.
“You told me to kill myself, to commit a mortal sin. You persuaded me to play an active part in my own damnation. You told me you were the first of the fallen.”
Making my way to the door, I shrugged. “Listen love, I say a lot of things.”
For more on the adventures of John Constantine check out my review of the pilot episode for the Constantine TV Show.
For more of my stories on demons and possession check out:
Eviction Notice – The tale of landlord tasked with tossing out a tenant possessed by a demon.
The Great American Tell Off Speech – The story of the hiring manager from hell interviewing a genuine demon.
Terms and Conditions – The story of an artist who tries to steal his inspiration back from the devil.
For my thoughts on the role of exorcisms in modern fiction, check out: Horror Clichés in need of an Exorcism.