The Host in the Attic
The Host in the Attic (novella)
The Host in the Attic by Rohan Quine is a hologram of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, digitised and reframed in cinematic style, set in London’s Docklands in a few years’ time.
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First taster of The Host in the Attic, from Part VI “Horror beneath glamour”
[…] He stares into the distance. Then he turns his head, slowly, towards the closed door leading to the rest of his darkened apartment.
He rises from his bed, pads across his bedroom, opens his door and stands there, in silence, staring out into the shadows.
He sets off towards the main hallway.
When he reaches the hallway, he stops and looks intently down it. He looks in particular to the end, where on the left there opens the mouth of that narrow side-corridor leading to the fire-door. There, as Jaymi well knows, there are also those two poky rooms on either side of the fire-door, as well as the hatch in the ceiling of the corridor…
There is dead silence throughout the penthouse.
He steps on down his main hallway, until he comes level with the narrow corridor’s mouth. He stops.
Slowly, he turns to face the corridor. He peers down the initial stretch of it, which is empty, claustrophobic and dead-straight as far as those corner-turnings halfway down.
And down it he goes, of course.
First, he creeps down the growing dimness of the straight stretch. Next, through thickening air, he makes a queasy, dream-like progress around each one of the several corner-turnings halfway down, which surely seem to number one more corner-turning than they did before; and how strange it is, he reflects, that he never has been able to recall exactly how many corner-turnings there are…
As soon as he reaches the point where he has a straight view down to the fire-door, he is hit by a vision of terror: with a grating rush, the corridor walls and ceiling and floor are all made of wet-breathing grey meat, bellowing in vicious pain, impaled by a dozen twitching meat-knives—
The vision slams away, echoes down and is sucked into silence in an instant.
Quiet and still again, the remaining half of the corridor stretches ahead, from Jaymi’s feet, just as close and thickly-aired as before, and dim-lit from nowhere.
And now he has to carry on down it, as he knows very well.
He waits a moment longer, but it’s really no use: for there go his feet, yes, stepping forward, down there underneath him…
While he goes, he next becomes aware that he is seeing every slanted ceiling angle, every leaning wall and object, with an odd kind of floatiness. And he’s also seeing all of these things from a little bit lower than his usual eye-height, as if he’s looking out of eyeballs that are embedded in the front and the sides of his neck, instead of embedded in his face.
The walls’ sallow flickering is hopeless and queasier than ever now: churning, aslant, darkly founded on an alien discomfort and disjunction…
He slows, as he draws near the fire-door and clenches his teeth between the two dark doorways yawning on either side of him.
He reaches gingerly for the metal-hooked stick leaning against the corner of the walls beside the fire-door.
He raises the hooked end of the stick, then finds himself fumbling, with painful slowness and frustration, to get the wavering, wandering, now rubbery hook itself through the metal loop that’s attached to the hatch-door…
Crying with fear of the dark, fear of the hopelessness and fear of the poky store-room beside him on his left in particular, he squeezes the increasingly squidgy, spongy, dripping-wet end of the metal hook, more painfully soft and small and useless with every fumbling second that passes—in through the loop’s ring at last.
He pulls down the hatch-door, and then the ladder attached to the door, as far down as the ladder will slide under its own weight. He reaches up to the latch on the side of the ladder, unhooks it and slides the ladder’s lower half down until it clangs onto the sweaty concrete floor of the corridor beside his bare toes.
Squinting, Jaymi forces his face to look straight up. A dim, cloudy green glow suffuses the square of black inside the hatch. He starts climbing the ladder, rung by rung, his feet weak and slippy on the cold metal, his entire body streaming sweat and shivering.
Hanging open just beneath the ceiling, the hatch-door swings away from the ladder by itself, right in front of his face, then continues to swing back and forth on its hinges, for longer than it should. He puts his hand out to stay it—but just before his hand can reach it, it stops swinging, more abruptly than it should.
He pushes himself onwards, upwards. The cloudy green glow reaches down at him. His head rises level with the hatch…
And over the edge of the hatch, at last, it is visible, up there on the table-top.
It is too far away to be seen in great detail. But even from here, it’s clear that things have changed quite a lot now. The situation has evidently reached some other level altogether.
He scuttles up the remaining steps, half-falls into the attic, rises again, shuffles down the central aisle of the attic with his head lowered, and approaches the hologram’s table with his eyes lowered, like a murderer approaching an altar.
At last he looks up at it.
The hologram is pure evil.
Second taster of The Host in the Attic, from Part IV “First cruelty of addiction”
[…] Late next morning, Jaymi reclines on his sofa. The hologram beside his laptop is a blur as it throws onto the screen a series of pages from around the world, of an evidently private nature, in response to his spoken navigation and search commands.
Prominent among these search results are images of animals savaging one another, war, violence, rape, medical operations, military installations and sinister-looking building plans, with pulses of light and a chaos of noise including the sounds of pain and suffering, the bleep of racing heart monitors, the wail of wartime sirens and the ticking of financial markets all across the globe.
Amid this onslaught, somewhere down the rabbit-hole of one fascinating search through a myriad private files, Jaymi is surprised to see his screen display the title-page of a novel, still in typescript form, called Alaia’s novel (to be titled), with the breathless sub-title “Monument to one woman’s love for Jaymi Peek”.
He starts forward, curious. It is a simple Word file, last modified a few days ago. The only other information this title-page gives him is the author’s name, Alaia Danielle, and her home address, which is some obscure street in E16. He proceeds to the first page, starts reading at high speed and becomes hooked, sucked in by the book’s strange intensity and febrility, as well as by its focus on himself. His screen soon displays page 3, page 10, page 30, 60, 120, all sense of time dropping away … until several hours later he reaches the very last words of the whole novel: “…glinting against the deepening ultramarine of the eastern sky with a hard, cold beauty.”
Lightning flashes in him and he snaps back into the leather sofa as if electrocuted—his mind churning hard and his eyes shining out a thousand metres through the wall ahead.
This strangest of novels features a Manhattan-based company called the General Network, but it is obvious to Jaymi, from many details, that this company is actually based on the Mainframe Corporation here in London. It must have been in order to avoid getting sued for libel that Alaia renamed and relocated Mainframe in this way. However, these gestures are unconvincing, to say the least, because no fewer than six of the novel’s lead characters bear the full names of real-life people living here in London, who are all now part of Jaymi’s life. Nor is it just a matter of names alone: these six real-life Londoners are clearly the models for Alaia’s characterisations, because the fictional half-dozen’s personalities and roles quite strikingly echo the personalities and roles of their real-world counterparts.
Third taster of The Host in the Attic, from Part VI “Horror beneath glamour”
[…] Late next evening Jaymi has positioned himself, as before, in front of his bathroom wall-mirror. This time, the mirror’s surface is not far from his right shoulder. His newer laptop’s clean hologram is right in front of him, just centimetres from his eyes, so it fills up his vision in an extreme close-up.
He kisses this unmoving, incorporeal face, with a deep, serious and unsmiling tenderness; then he swivels his gaze to the right, to watch himself and the hologram together. Their reflection fascinates him, and he carries on kissing for quite a while—not salaciously but romantically, even chastely.
His memory flashes back to himself with the other hologram, spotlit here: before any visible corruption in it but still very disconcerting nonetheless, with Jaymi’s eyeballs flicking across those twin faces, scouring them for any differences…
He returns to his kissing now, watching himself and the hologram out of the corner of his right eye, his kisses becoming fractionally steamier.
His memory flashes back, too, to himself and the other hologram staring at each other here on their follow-up visit—Jaymi’s gaze skewering it once again, flicking from left to right—and this time that unmistakable new touch of extra cruelty in its lineaments, while his own remained as sweet and youthful as the day he was filmed.
He withdraws his mouth from the other’s face, and glances in the mirror at his own in half-profile against the darkness.
Then slowly, inexorably, his gaze travels away from the mirror.
It travels upwards and somewhat to one side, as if in order to see up through the walls and through the ceiling … to the attic.
He gets up. He moves towards the doorway. He emerges from his bathroom door, looks to his hallway, and sets off towards it.
Reaching the hallway, he pauses, looking intently down its length. Looking, in particular, at the mouth of the narrow side-corridor that leads to the fire-escape door, the two smaller doorways, the ceiling hatch with the ladder…
He steps towards that mouth. Soon he reaches it.
And into it he turns.
He sets off down that initial, straight length of the narrow corridor.
He then makes a queasy, dream-like progress around those several corner-turnings, which seem, perhaps, to number even one more than they did last time.
Reaching the point where he will be able to see down the final stretch to the fire-door, he braces himself for a grating rush and that vision of the corridor walls as wet-breathing grey meat stuck with carving-knives … his eyes now squinting and oozing tears in anticipation of it … but this time it doesn’t happen.
Instead, the corridor just stretches ahead of him: quieter, dimmer and narrower than ever.
He presses on, starting again to register his perceptions with that familiar floating motion, from lower down than his usual eye-height—from lower down, even, than he did before, so that this time it’s not as if he’s perceiving through eyeballs that are buried in his neck, but rather through eyes that peek from between the prison-bars of his ribs.
Now he’s approaching the end of the corridor, where the fire-door is, between the two side-doors. Without looking into either of these doorways, he reaches for the stick, feels the stick’s hook with his fingers, so as to verify it is metal, raises the hooked end up to the hatch-door, and then starts fumbling with a painful, wavering slowness and paralysed frustration, to get the hook through the loop … but this time it is the loop’s turn to be shrunken, rubbery, squidgy, useless, hopeless.
At last, almost crying with fear of the dark poky store-room beside him on his left, he squeezes the metal hook through the loop. He pulls the hatch-door down, then carelessly forgets his vigilance, such that his eyes wander to peep at the bathroom mirror; and his chest cavity lies wide open, containing an obscene black pulsing thing with teeth, around a hideous gape of a mouth, with eyeballs peeping out from between the stumps of his sawn-off ribs—
This vision screeches up out of the mirror, streaks past him, and gibbers and chatters away down the corridor at his back, leaving just his accustomed reflection on the sweating surface of the bathroom mirror.
Grimly, he looks up; for he’s only just begun here.
He pulls at the end of the ladder with the hook, draws it down through the hatch and slides its lower half to the floor. Starting up the rungs, glancing often at the store-room doorway nearby on his left, he puts his hand out towards the hanging hatch-door, expecting it to start swinging, but it doesn’t.
He climbs on, and now the metal rungs start bending with a slight rubberiness beneath his slippery toes, which causes him to speed up, so as to make it up there in time. The hologram’s glow gets closer, closer … and then, over the edge of the hatch, it comes into sight: up there, at the far end of the attic.
Shorter teasers of the nine chapters of The Host in the Attic are here:
Table of Contents of The Host in the Attic
I. Imminent completion of masterpiece
II. Portrait captures first corruption
III. Addicted to the image
IV. First cruelty of addiction
V. Portrait infected and shut away
VI. Horror beneath glamour
VII. …A decade later
VIII. The Furies close in and feign defeat