UKArchive ID: 28023sirat
Originally published on August 17, 2012 in Fiction
This one is for the 'Workshop Challenges/Writing Exercises' forum challenge, a story in which 'at least some of the action takes place in a House of Mirrors'. I hope you like it.
A man and a woman were standing by the door of the Reinhardt house when I arrived. They’d come in a small red Japanese car and parked it on the paved section of the driveway, much too close to the solemn pillared entrance, flanked by its two stone goddesses. It looked very wrong. Far too bright and modern, thoughtlessly disrupting the dignity and even solemnity of the front elevation that the architect had so lovingly devised. The young couple waited patiently for me to park in a generously proportioned alcove at the side of the building and crunch my way across the gleaming marble gravel to where they stood. They were young and casually dressed in jeans and ‘T’ shirts. I suspected that my much more formal appearance made them uncomfortable. The woman gave me a bright if not entirely sincere smile and the man held out his hand in greeting. It was he who addressed me.
“Hello, Mr Cunningham. You found your way all right?”
“No problem. I hope I haven’t kept you waiting.”
“Not at all. I’m Claude Selby. This is Rita. We run the Selby Agency together.”
I nodded. “Shall we go in then?”
The young man frowned. “I’ve unlocked the door. You’ve seen the printed material. You’re very welcome to have a look around yourself if you would like, and I’ll be here to answer any questions.”
I was slightly surprised that he didn’t want to come with me, if only to make sure that I didn’t pocket any of the old man’s valuables. Although in reality the personal effects would have been removed by now. Anything of real value would have been sold to pay the death duties. There would just be some furniture – perhaps some family portraits. But always that faint chance that something had been missed. I wondered if they were actually scared of the old place. If they’d been listening to the stories about the Reinhardt family.
“I believe old Otto was a bit of a recluse?” I offered, to provide an opening for anything they might want to tell me.
“Very much so. I’ve never met anybody who’s actually seen him. There was just the old butler who found the body. Mr Reinhardt lived on his own here for more than twenty years. Ever since his father died in the 1990s. A very private man.”
“Oh well. I suppose I may as well take a look then. Sure you don’t want to come with me?”
“No, sir. Quite sure. We’ll leave you alone to have a good look. Take as long as you like.”
I thanked the pair of them and pushed the heavy door open. It took my eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom. My initial impression was of a big dim space, cut across by a single shaft of sunlight from a high window, and smelling of furniture polish. Then, slowly, the details of the entrance hall began to show themselves. An elegant and highly decorated curved staircase sweeping up to a balcony from which two corridors disappeared into the distance. On the wall beneath it an enormous faded battle scene of soldiers on horseback with chainmail and broad-brimmed hats, wounded men bleeding beneath galloping hooves, pikemen in the distance, musketeers squatting in the foreground, flags waving, pain and death everywhere. Smaller framed pictures to either side. An oval wooden table in the middle of the floor with two elegant carved wooden chairs at either side, presumably where the butler would have asked visitors to wait until Mr Reinhardt was ready to see them. If anybody had ever come to see him, that is. Cabinets and book cases lined most of the walls, heavy curtains hiding high-up leaded-glass windows. The space seemed to radiate antiquity and neglect. A room where nothing much had happened for a very long time. It was a museum piece – dusted and polished undoubtedly, but no longer enjoyed, if it ever had been.
There were light switches on the wall close to where I had entered. I tried each of them in turn but to no effect. The electricity, understandably, was switched off.
I took the phone from my pocket and used its display as a light to take a closer look at the pictures hanging in the gloom beneath the balcony. Formal family portraits of indifferent quality, nothing much older than the middle of the 18th century. Strange how the people managed to look German rather than English, even when there were no obvious clues or indicators in their surroundings. The battle scene was the only one that might possibly fetch a worthwhile price, but up close the technique with which it was painted was relatively crude, and I didn’t recognise the artist’s name.
Another large reception room on the ground floor – a dining room – a kitchen – a smaller lounge. Masses of period furniture. Dozens of pieces of art. But, as expected, the best pieces represented only by rectangles of un-faded wallpaper or vacant spaces where one might have expected a chair, a cabinet or a desk. The auctioneers appointed by the solicitors had done their job well.
By the time I got to the upstairs rooms, of which there were many, my phone was displaying a warning that its battery was about to give out, and I had found nothing to suggest that the remaining contents were worth any more than the estate agents’ crude valuation. I wondered if I should get somebody to come up from Southeby’s to take a look at the battle scene, but decided that it probably wouldn’t be worth their fee.
The upstairs room at the far end of the left-hand corridor bore a German inscription on a tarnished brass plate: ‘Gefahr. Zimmer von Spiegeln’. I was pretty sure that ‘gefahr’ meant ‘danger’ and ‘zimmer’ was a room. There was presumably something dangerous about this room.
I located Selby’s number on my phone and called him, waiting at the door with his wife. “Mr Selby? It’s Nick Cunningham here. I’ve found a room with some kind of brass plaque on it. Something to do with danger…”
“That’s the Room of Mirrors, Mr Cunningham. I wouldn’t go in there.”
“The Room of Mirrors? Sounds like a fairground attraction…”
“No, Mr Cunningham. Its purpose was rather more serious than that…” As he spoke I turned the handle and opened the door. There was no light whatsoever in the room. It was like stepping into the blackness of space before time had begun. I stood still, waiting for my eyes to accommodate, hoping that the feeble glow of the telephone would show me something of where I was. Selby’s voice continued. “As you may know, Mr Reinhardt was the unfortunate victim of severe facial disfigurement. He was trapped in the family home on the outskirts of Dresden when it was firebombed by the Allies in February 1945. His family had money and influence and he got life-saving treatment straight away, but the reconstruction of his face couldn’t begin until the war ended about three months later. It was too late to do very much then. There had been infections, complications. They managed to save his sight, it seems, but in retrospect, it might have been better if they hadn’t.”
“What has that got to do with the Room of Mirrors?” As I asked the question the door clicked shut behind me. But instead of total darkness, I seemed to be floating in a night sky filled with clusters of faint blue-white stars stretching to infinity in every direction. It was quite stunningly beautiful. As I lifted the telephone very slightly towards my face the entire universe seemed to surge upwards to follow it. The telephone was my universe – it’s feebly glowing screen was every one of the stars, reflected endlessly backwards and forwards from unseen walls of facing mirrors. “It’s beautiful,” I whispered into the phone. “It’s absolutely beautiful.”
“I don’t quite understand you, Mr Cunningham. What’s beautiful?”
“Everything. The Room of Mirrors. The stars. The little stars that my phone is making. They’re everywhere. The whole world is made of stars…” I turned around and reached out, trying to touch the stars, or the mirrors, or whatever it was that was out there. I walked forwards with my right hand containing the phone outstretched, moving it up and down and side to side, making the universe shimmer and dance, painting with stars, creating order and beauty out of the points of light. But there was nothing there, my hand continued to wave about in empty air. I could find no opposite wall. I turned and walked in a different direction. Exactly the same. No mirrors. Nothing but the faint, infinitely numerous points of light, moving to my command, under my control. How many steps was that I had taken? I wasn’t sure.
Selby was saying something. I held the phone closer to my ear. “…designed by his father. It was supposed to make him overcome his revulsion about his own appearance. Make him get used to it and accept it. Force him to acknowledge who he was.”
“I see. That was a pretty cruel thing for his father to do to him, wasn’t it? Though well-intentioned, I suppose.”
“Cruel and futile, Mr Cunningham. However you want to say it, whatever euphemism you want to use, Otto Reinhardt retired from the world as soon as he saw what he looked like. It’s generally accepted that he lost his sanity and had to be hidden away by his family. The room you’re standing in has some very bad stories connected with it. I’m not a superstitious man but I wouldn’t want to go in there personally.”
“It’s just a room, Mr Selby. With mirrors on the walls. And the ceiling, I think. Maybe even on the floor. I wonder how they did that? It’s a very strange room. But I think I’ve seen enough now. I’m coming out.”
“Good idea. If there were such things as ghosts… sorry, I’m talking nonsense now.”
“Don’t worry. I’m coming out.”
I tried to remember exactly where I had come from. Had I changed direction twice or only once? I tried to estimate where the door was but the stars looked the same in every direction. I hadn’t even noticed whether the door had a handle on the inside. But of course it must have a handle. How could a door not have a handle? I walked, but found no door. No mirror, no wall. The stars seemed to be getting a little fainter. I felt a rush of anxiety. “Mr Selby? I’m really sorry to bother you, but do you think you could come up here and open the door for me? It’s very difficult to see where it is in the dark.”
There was no reply. I glanced down at the screen. There was only a red battery alert and the words: ‘no signal’. Then, without further warning, there was nothing. No light from the screen. No light from anywhere. And the phone itself seemed to have gone. I must have dropped it. What a silly thing to have done! But why hadn’t I heard it hit the floor? It was almost as though the device had disappeared. Passed out of existence. I was clutching nothing – just making a fist with my empty hand.
All I could see now were the after-images of the stars on the backs of my eyes. A powdering of white dots remembered by my retinas. The darkness was absolute. But Selby must have heard my call for help. How could he not have heard it? “Selby?” I spoke his name aloud, pointlessly.
The dots on my retinas began to swim. They were trying to coalesce into some kind of image. I closed my eyes, unnecessarily, because there was no light to shield them from, but somehow it seemed the right thing to do. The dots were brightening a little. Forming an image. An image of a human face! A face staring straight into mine. A melted, distorted, asymmetric face, the most repulsive one I had ever seen or could ever have imagined.
I took an involuntary step backwards to get away from it, but the position of the face did not change. It still hung in the air, just a few inches from mine. When it spoke its eyes narrowed into the caricature of a smile. The lips pulled aside to reveal random crooked teeth in decayed and eroded gums. Its accent was thickly Germanic, its diction slurred, but still the words were unmistakable: “I am handsome. I am normal. For the first time I can see myself as I really am. The mirrors have stopped telling me lies. I am cured! I have got my real face back again… I'll always have it now!”
Archived comments for Loss of Face
TheBigBadG on 17-08-2012
Loss of Face
I'd say this was more a ghost story or horror, but I also enjoyed the fact that I wasn't trying to double-guess it so perhaps it's better for the 'drama' label. It feels quite different from your normal stuff indeed, which is good and interesting. There are Lovecraftian moments in there, with the decrepit house and the sense of invading an incomprehensible gateway. Nothing too overt or heavy-handed though, which I like; just hints and tones.
To return the favour, a couple of technicalities: on capitals but I'd use 'Selby Agency' and 'death duties' personally, and phones either have a symbol for no signal or say 'Emergency calls only' in my experience.
As for the story overall, I think the slipping into the mirrors is handled very well, everything from the dying battery onwards in fact. The gentle drifting away, the vanishing of the phone etc are the strongest moments IMO. You step back from the cliched 'horror and the unknowable' at the right moment which captures the confusion and enchantment. I'd perhaps lose the 'for all eternity' at the end though because I don't think you need to spell it out that explicitly. The reveal is to do with the narrator being trapped and claimed by Reinhardt, that's enough for me.
I'd be inclined to cut the para with the description of the battle-scene down as it feels like a red-herring once you get to the end. The antiquity and unpleasant, dominant nature of the artwork is the message, which could be expressed more efficiently.
Good stuff though, not the kind of thing I was expecting, which is always my favourite kind of thing.
Thanks for the feedback. It's not really an unsual kind of story for me, I used to do lots of this kind of thing when I was starting out, but I've veered away from them.
You're right that I didn't want to use the 'Ghost Story' or 'Horror' categories because they would give too much away.
Taking your points one by one, I agree about the Selby Agency, and strangely enough ' Death Duties' was originally 'death duties' but I thought it looked wrong and changed it. Will change it back.
A phone offering 'emergency calls only' would be telling you there was no money in your account, surely, not that there was no signal? You couldn't make emergency calls if there was no signal. Whether words or a symbol are used to convey the 'no signal' condition would vary from one model to another. I think I'll leave that. The idea is that he has passed into a region where radio waves don't penetrate. His link with the ordinary world has gone.
I tend to agree about 'for all eternity'. There's probably a better phrase, but I think it needs something to round off the story. Maybe 'I'll never lose it now' or something.
I'm not sure about the description of the picture. It explains what Cunningham is doing there, where his interests lie. And all you've got really is a description of the scene and his opinion that it's crudely painted and of little value. I think I'll probably let it stand.
So I've made a few small changes in response to what you've said.
WendyJ on 17-08-2012
Loss of Face
This is a great story and had my heart pumping with anticipation and a little bit of fear of the unexpected.
I do agree with TheBigBadG though, in thinking the battle scene on the picture was a little more than it needed to be, but the discription of the house was great and really set the scene.
Thanks, Wendy. Much appreciated.
bluepootle on 31-08-2012
Loss of Face
Sorry to get here so late. I think there's a wonderful bit of writing here when he first discovers the room of mirrors. It really draws the reader in. Nice use of the phone to fill in the backstory too. I think you could heighten the creepiness by lengthening the later description of the ruined face, and not ending on that dialogue, but on internal realization of what has happened that builds to a crescendo. The dialogue just feels a bit forced at the end there. Still, I love this kind of macabre story and really enjoyed this example of it.