As I may have mentioned, my fiction covers a number of genres, including so-called women’s fiction, fantasy, and horror. This month I’d like to give you an early holiday present by sharing “Serena’s Hound,” a horror story inspired by a sublime Francis Thompson poem, called “The Hound of Heaven,” in which a benevolent beast serves as an unshakable companion. Read the poem (it’s a gem), then the short story. The double reading should give you a sense of the creative process: how an idea or image (in this case a hound) plants a seed, and how that seed germinates and mutates to form a different existence entirely.
Here, then is my story:
Her feet keep a steady beat through blood-orange sunrises and blue-black nights, through wastelands of whistling winds that swallow her wails and pastures with speckled wildflowers that mock her mourning. Her spirit haunted, she wanders unheeded through global tundras, cursing the dawn and condemning the dusk, obsessed with the hunt, doing daily battle with despair.
Once, though, Serena knew hope. She began the journey of life in due time and in happiness. “Please, Mama,” she said, “let me test my design talent where it counts, in New York.”
Her widowed mother feared for her only child. “Stay, Serena,” she said. “Here community constraints deter evil; there its seeds are scattered abroad, only to sprout when you least expect them.” But she yielded to her daughter’s dream, and gave it her blessing.
Serena rented her first apartment in a picturesque building with a river view. When heavy rains soaked the floor, she covered the wood rot in the sleeping alcove with an artful rug. Serena knew that only the thinnest sheet rock divided the rental warrens, but she was not overly distressed by the sounds —lovers’ spats and vehement altercations, raucous guitar chords and sweet violin strings, parrot chatter and dog vocalizations. Every tenant seemed to own at least one dog, many had two or more. It was not uncommon for Serena to be shut out of an elevator by a young dog walker wrangling five or six charges. All breeds were represented: toy, terrier, sporting, working, herding, and hound.
She met the single hound on her way to work when dawn was breaking. The startling silver sheen of its coat, moonlit in the twilight, captivated her. Drake, the animal’s sweat-suited escort, was an exercise trainer, he said, who walked the dog daily before heading for the gym. He saw her staring at the dog. “Brutus is a Thai ridgeback, ancient breed, good hunter hound and watch dog.” One look at the pointed snout, perpendicular ears and wary eyes left Serena no doubt of the beast’s slaughtering and safeguarding versatility.
“It’s strangely beautiful,” she said.
“Fulton County, Georgia.”
“Nice. See you around, I’m sure.” He picked up his pace, the dog at his side.
The one time that the hound breached bounds, it was her fault. She was waiting for the elevator when the beast approached. With bent head, it sniffed her ankles and calves, learning her scent. She saw the mark of its ancient breed—the nap of silver pelt streaked in reverse down the length of its back—and could not resist stroking the ridge with the tips of her fingers. Before she understood what had happened, the dog snapped its head back and nipped her hand, drawing a single drop of blood.
Drake offered a lazy apology: “He doesn’t like to be touched by strangers.” She rubbed her hand and held her peace. Drake was her neighbor, after all. She should try to get along.
The next day she spotted the studded leash in the hall. The hound’s eyes, full of heat and yearning, locked onto hers. Why, she wondered, was her upstairs neighbor waiting for an elevator on her floor? She took the stairs.
Man and beast were waiting for her in the lobby.
“I’m having a building party Friday night to celebrate the start of winter. Wine and tapas. Starts eight-ish. Hope you can make it.”
“Sorry, I promised a friend I’d have a drink with her on Friday.”
“Bring her along. I have enough to feed and water a football team. If you’re worried about the dog, don’t be. I’m boarding Brutus for the evening.”
“I’ll let you know,” she said.
After a day of slogging through rough layouts, she thought, why not? Her nonexistent friend would catch the flu, the hound would take a leave of absence, and she’d get a chance to socialize. Serena was having trouble meeting people in New York. Everyone was busy or distracted or both. It had been much easier in Georgia.
She got home by six and rang her host’s bell. When he cracked the door, the hound lunged toward her. She reeled back, landing on her tailbone. A pandemonium of growls and grunts broke out before party guests managed to pull the beast inside. Drake closed the door behind him, at the same time extending his hand to help her to her feet.
Embarrassed, hurting and furious, Serena had second thoughts about attending the party.
“You came to say you’re coming on Friday, right?” He forestalled her excuses: “Brutus was escaping, not attacking. You were never in danger.”
She hesitated a second. Inside the beast was battering the door.
“The dog won’t be here.”
She took a breath. “Yes, I’ll come.”
An awkward silence followed. “I’ll see you in a few days, if not sooner,” she said.
He watched till she turned into the stairway.
The hound appeared to go into hiding the rest of the week. She neither saw nor heard it. After work on Friday, she zeroed in on the tub, splashed it with bath oils, set her iPod to light jazz, and basked in the luxury of warm water and perfumed bubbles. An hour later, relaxed and looking forward to the evening ahead, she blow-dried her lush chestnut hair, a secret source of pride. After applying a touch of powder to her perfect skin, then mascara and lipstick, she slipped into a pair of black slacks and a white silk blouse. A pair of silver strands around her neck completed the outfit. She looked into the mirror. Good to go.
At 8:20, her best guess at defining “eight-ish,” she pressed the bell of 13D. Drake pecked her cheek in greeting, handed her a glass of red wine, and led her to a table laden with sandwiches and spreads. Opposite the buffet and a bare window, a red wall, meant to camouflage a Murphy bed, supported a makeshift bar. Rock music blasted through floor speakers and the odor of male sweat permeated the room. Faces darted by, and she caught only fragments of names. Serena could see, however, that men eyed her with appreciation. Their approval bolstered her confidence.
She sipped her wine and tried to make small talk above the din. A middle-aged guy with a paunch and tobacco-stained teeth used what she had come to recognize as the New York opener. “What do you do?” he asked. “Graphic design.” He nodded and she excused herself. A nearby ad executive shared his wisdom with another guest: “Vampires and sexy women bring in the bucks. That’s the bottom line.” As her eyes roamed the room, Serena thought she recognized one or two building tenants—the newly married accountant, the elderly parrot keeper.
The realization came with a shock: she was the only female in the room. Shaken, she resolved to leave immediately. Disentangling herself from a buyer, she made her away across the room to say goodnight to her host. Ambient conversations grew distinct:
“…Not here tonight.”
“Then it’s off?”
She felt someone brush past her.
“Drake, is it off?”
“No, we’ll start a few minutes later, that’s all.”
In the airless room her breathing became stressed. She found a window and cracked it open, drawing in deep breaths. When she checked her face in a wall mirror, she was appalled to see her eyelids drooping. She needed to lie down. She thought she could make it to her apartment before collapsing.
She was wrong.
* * *
Serena opened her eyes. She lay sprawled on a Murphy bed looking up at a red wall. Brutus sat on the floor beside her in stoic vigil, the amber eyes signaling caution. She could turn her head but she could not move a single limb, though she willed each one in turn to stir, and then willed her panic to subside. How long she lay there naked, shivering, counting the hexagons in the patterned ceiling she had no idea. It might have been five minutes or five hours.
The hound’s snout roused her. She sidled across the bed, her torso hanging over the edge, her head lolling, and lost her balance. The beast yowled as she landed face down on the floor, striking her nose with force. The bridge cracked. Stunned, Serena struggled to catch her breath. The area rug should have buffered her fall. No. She had never made it home. She was still in Drake’s apartment. She tried to make sense of her situation. She had drunk only one glass of wine, not enough to pass out.
She slept fitfully. Once she woke to icy drops striking the back of her neck and spilling down her spine. Another time a scraping on the wood floor woke her. She turned to see the beast nosing a metal bowl across the room. Water! She tried to hurtle her body toward the bowl, wrenching her neck in the effort. Her nose throbbed. Her gullet felt gravel-lined. She produced no saliva, but the swallow reflex flayed her throat. Had she been in an accident? No, she’d be in a hospital, not in this red-walled room on a Murphy bed with a dog standing guard. If she was dreaming, she needed to wake up.
Wake up! Wake up!
* * *
It was a long time before Serena could lap up the water in the bowl from her prone position. She had to rest on her shoulders. Her hair got in the way, but no matter. She slurped the bitter-tasting water through the soaked strands. Then she laid her cheek on the hard wood and slept.
Serena dreamt she was devouring live chickens, gagging on gore and feathers. The broken nose obstructed her nasal passages, and she struggled for breath. She opened her eyes to blind darkness. In her sleep she had chewed on her tongue, and it was mush in her mouth. Slime slid down her chin. Slime slid down her thighs. The room stank of herself and something else, something she couldn’t identify. Her knees jerked to her chest in felt, though phantom, motion. Real spasms racked her body as she digested the obvious: in paralysis she retained sensation.
She heard her mother calling her. You were right, Mama. A nest of vipers. They sprang without warning. Poor Mama would die alone now while she, at least, had the hound for company.
Polly loves Charley! Polly loves Charley! Polly loves Charley! The parrot chatter penetrated the blackness. How long had she lain face down on the floor? A frigid light streamed through the window, carrying a vision of the frozen river. The glint of the cold sun assaulted her eyes. She turned her cheek, but heaved at the sight under the bed. The desiccated remains of a small animal lay decomposing. She clamped her eyes shut.
They sprang open when the hound’s padded paw grazed her lids. Moonbeams scattered diamonds on the beast’s shimmering coat. How could she have feared her hound? She prayed for the animal and for herself. Her prayers were groans, her cries strangled yelps.
She was being starved. The empty bowl lay in a far corner of the room. The pain in her stomach had disappeared, but her gums bled into her mouth, and the liquid stimulated her thirst to exquisite sensibility. She banged her head repeatedly against the floor. The violence of her tremors forced her legs apart, and one foot now rested against the cold metal leg of the bed.
* * *
Serena sensed the transfer of air above her head. She looked up to see Drake at her head looking down, the hound in front of him. Flanking her tormentor on each side stood a line of vaguely familiar male figures. One with a round belly overhanging his belt smiled down at her. Another—the ad executive?—raised his hand to her in greeting. From a long way off, as though across eons, came voices:
“It won’t be long now. The water’s kept them alive, but if they don’t feed, they’ll both be dead in a day, two at the most.”
She strained to puzzle out the meaning of the mouthings, the taunting tones and discordant din.
“Camera set up?”
“Real-life Beauty and the Beast—R-rated, of course!”
“I’m laying three-to-one odds in the beast’s favor. Time to ante up or get out.”
Someone else spoke, but the words got lost in a time drift until, again, the first voice pierced the present:
“By weighing assets and liabilities. Both can barely move. The girl’s smarter, but she’ll hesitate till it’s too late. The dog won’t be so squeamish. In my book he’ll do what it takes to survive.”
Drake used his foot to turn her over on her back. He yanked the necklace strands and grabbed a hank of hair. “Let’s see how we’re doing,” his eyes, inches away, scanned her face. “Nasty bit of acne there.” She couldn’t focus. Her eyes shuttled side to side without her volition. He snorted.
“Can barely hear you, Honey.”
“What? Oh. Because it’s fun. The fact is, we like to gamble, a lot, on anything and everything. We used to do the usual stuff—ball games, horse races, dog fights, cards. But that grew dull after a while, so we, I, got creative. For a bigger bang we kept the dog and added a girl. Except for the runaway, you were the easiest to reel in. Then—my stroke of genius—we starved them both and made book on what would happen. Would the dog devour the girl alive? Even money. Would the dog wait for the girl to die before feasting on her? Ten to one. Would the girl cannibalize her own body? Fifty to one. Would she find a way to feed on the dog? A hundred to one. Would each die of starvation without attacking the other? A thousand to one. Hasn’t happened yet.
She spat in his face but her output was only a burst of air that sounded like a sigh. A moment of clinical observation, then he leaned in, hawked, exploded a ball of phlegm at her left cheek, and monitored its trajectory. It oozed from the corner of her eye, down the side of her nose, oh, God, over her lips. Her tongue sprang out and lapped it up before the moisture was lost to her.
He released her head, letting it drop with a thud. Then he picked off the straw-like strands stuck between his fingers. He appraised her spread-eagled body, the skeletal structure visible, threatening to puncture the skin. Under the scrutiny of a dozen witnesses, she endured his fingers running over her torso and abdomen.
“Nice. You’ll have a downy cover soon.”
When he probed her recesses, she opened her mouth to scream, but produced only a dry bark.
“Don’t cry havoc just yet,” he said. “We’re leaving. But Brutus might get a little cranky. I’ve stopped feeding him.”
* * *
Her nightmares staged a theater of the macabre. Long-armed shadows reached for her. Gargoyles with basilisk eyes seared her flesh, their legs straddling anterior tails. She lay helpless in the swelling vortex: fantastic forms circled her, whirling, swirling, descending, sucking her soul into the void.
Fewer and fewer times would her lids open, and when they did, there sat the hound, scanning her face. She saw in his eyes the need to feed, the self-defying devotion. She heard from him the strangled sounds of distress.
“Friend,” she whispered, with effort extending her arm, “what little flesh is left I have no use for. Save yourself.
Heedless, the hound sat fixed near the mistress of his heart.
“Why do you love me?” she whispered, as if her friend could voice an answer, as if an answer to the query could be voiced.
Days passed. Still on her back, still on the floor, she lost track of them. The ice melted. The river flowed. From time to time she heard a beagle’s whine, a bulldog’s chuffing, a schnauzer’s snores. Her hound made no more sounds. Its pelt hung in bruised flaps. Its amber eyes burned with fever.
* * *
The newlyweds were quarreling: not the time for babies he said, never the right time she said.
The incubi revisited her. They penetrated her, shredding delicate, secret tissues, rending her spirit. Again and again. Till they returned no more.
Her agony consummated, she began her withdrawal, delaying only long enough to proffer her arm to the fast fading hound. It knew the precise moment of her leave-taking and accepted the sacrament only then. But nourishment came too late. The beloved lost, the hound bayed through the long night. In the morning the beast blinked; death quenched the amber light.
* * *
In the limbo shadow world the dead linger, restless till they witness retribution. Here Serena’s spirit seeks out her tormentor. The hound at her side, she haunts the land of the living, ranging over shores veiled in mist, traversing waves that clash in cosmic rhythms, treading miles of desert in search of the hell where Drake dwells. Serena measures time with the metronome of her unhealed heart, the years consumed day by day, the days hour by hour, minute by minute . . . till her wait ends, and a blood-red hole rends open time.
Serena descends into the timeless abyss of the damned. In the dense depths she finds him, befouled in noxious vapors, surrounded by fiery-eyed denizens exacting justice. Their razor talons flay him neck to legs: the dripping strips hang loose at his ankles.
Her hound appears in time to devour the bloody pulp, tearing away muscle and sinew, crunching bone with primal purpose. As the flesh regenerates, the talons reach out anew. Frenzied shrieks rend the darkness. Contrapuntal notes—the howling of the hound and Serena’s shrill laughter—rise in exultation.
Anguish extinguished, demons quelled, they rest serene at last, Beauty and her Beast.
I hope you enjoyed “Serena’s Hound.” It might be fun to compare it to “The Hound of Heaven”: How are the story and poem alike and different (focus on character, setting, point of view, tone, and narrative content).