H. P. Lovecraft influences many of the American horror magazines by the pulp era and, while magazines in Britain tend more to the shadow of M. R. James. Rarely is there an independent soul like Archie N. Roy of Scotland, who follows neither trend. He’s only recently begun to publish short stories like “The Kiss,” “The Visitor,” and “Azrael’s Atonement” in Fantasy Macabre, while surreal vignettes were penned for Fantasy & Terror. His influences are such as Emma Tennant, Angela Carter, and Jorge Luis Borges, tempered by his own unique and twisted vision.
When Azrael fell through my attic window, scattering shards of glass, throwing the contents into even greater disarray, he lay curled on the floor shivering and shaking as if he had frightened himself half into insanity. Hearing the crash from below, I climbed the attic stairs to find him on the floor; at first I thought he was injured. He could have mangled a wing or torn his dark brown flesh in the fall, and as it was, he lay covered in sharp glass fragments. I took a thin and insufficient broom (Mrs. McOwan must have thrown it into the attic after considerable use) and swept the debris off him. And then I took a closer look. He had wrapped his wings tightly about himself perhaps on impact with the skylight and these (being thick and rubbery) had cushioned the blow. I saw no wounds, but he reacted in a dazed and lethargic manner when I prodded him with the broom handle.
“You can’t stay here,” I said, beginning to sneeze. “It’s far too dusty. I’m hardly ever up here myself.” The angel of death shifted slowly but he did not give the impression of responding. His glazed eyes, profoundly deep, saw only inwards. He reformed into a crouched position with his wings partly outstretched, their tips tapping the cold, coarse planks in a tentative, delicate way, and he remained like this for the next few minutes, his triangular face revealing nothing. “You’ll have to come down from this attic,” I remonstrated, pleaded, cajoled. But at last I was forced to lift him bodily to his feet and drag him down the stairs. I surprised myself in being able to do this, but, in fact, his body was almost as slim as mine and only his wings were a burden — dropping over my face to blind me from time to time. I hauled him downstairs; a grim task since my teeth were set on edge by his claws scraping stridently over the wood.
Shortly afterward I assigned the angel to the spare bedroom and locked the door in case he emerged from his trance: it had to be either this room or the garden shed and the latter was in greater need of a clean-out than the attic. Neither did I wish to be cruel and put him out. Yet despite this, I was in two minds about it. I did not want him living ill the house since he had upset the rhythm of things already; the glazier would have to be called, the attic properly tended to. The creature smelled somewhat into the bargain, of fish I thought at the time, and I did not want the smell to pervade the house, slinking into the cupboards or clinging to the wallpaper. But I felt I should wait to see what my family (who were out visiting) or even Mrs. McOwan thought of the situation, so I settled down and lit a pipe, content to tell whoever arrived first about the problem.
As chance would have it, my wife phoned to say they would be back late and Mrs. McOwan arrived earlier than usual to be shown to the bedroom and its new (temporary) occupant. Almost at once and by a process unknown to me, he had gained her affection and she looked mournfully into his blank, sinister face saying, “The poor thing’s in shock.” And she patted a claw sympathetically and said, her normal chores forgotten, “I’ll make it something to eat.” This she did, returning within the half hour with a dish of loin chops and spaghetti. She fed the death-angel (who sat upright on the bed absent-mindedly scratching his thick, oily feathers) with considerable patience but sensed my consternation and snapped, “Can you think of any food more fitting for an angel?” I admitted I couldn’t, being quite ignorant of the subject. Once the meal was finished, the housekeeper motioned me urgently out of the room insisting that all he needed now was plenty of rest, sir. With no company or disturbance.
For the next few days, Azrael kept to himself, attended to by Mrs. McOwan who nursed him as if he was part of her very large brood of children. He did not receive visitors (nor apparently wished to) since I had business to attend to and, to the best of my knowledge; neither my wife nor my daughters ever went near him. But finally Mrs. McOwan who said that the angel of death requested a word or two with me, sir, if I wasn’t too busy interrupted me in my study. So I went up to see him.
“I expect your cooking’s done him a power of good Mrs. M.,” I said when we got to the landing in front of the angel’s room, but the smell there was of rotting flesh, and for a moment I wondered. I entered the room, dismissing the hesitant woman whom I suspected was getting jealous of her charge.
I exclaimed when I saw the change in him.
Two more wings, small and still drawn tight, sprouted from his shoulders. His body had grown to twice its original size and was covered with blood-red eyes, which stared bale-fully as one, conveying an oppressive energy. His face was like nothing I had ever seen.
His stench tormented me, yet I listened, entranced, to all that he told me.
His story was brief and tragic; he was fortunate indeed to be alive for he, the diligent reaper, the death-angel, had fallen asleep and forgotten the decree absolute which ordained that all will pass from the earth after their three score years and ten. He it was who had first brought early mortality into the world (the first of our race had lived through several centuries) and now there were many — so, so many — who had been allowed to live longer. Therefore he was cast down from his throne between Heaven and Hell, almost all his strength and power removed, and was shocked so much by his fall from grace that he found he no longer possessed the strength to secure even a safe landing.
“And what will you do?” I said, distressed by his situation and, by implication, my own: I was sure the house would already smell badly for weeks.
He paced the room in an awkward way and said he had been thinking about that and wanted to be reinstated. But he knew that his task now was to show he was still capable, able to extinguish, destroy, efficiently and easily. More than anything to atone for his negligence. Too many souls had escaped and reparations had to be made. A sacrifice. There was the problem, he added, of his greatly depleted energy; he would have liked to weed out all those who were old and spent but this would involve such a long, tiresome journey. Instead he would expel the strength he retained on the place he had fallen into, and give the city and its inhabitants up as an offering. At once I was alarmed, thinking of my family, but the angel of death, being altogether grateful, assured me they could leave and should do so at once. I would be safe in his company.
Accepting this was all I could do. I saw my family and our housekeeper off to our weekend home over on the coast, assured them I would join them later. Then, I flew on Azrael’s back high across the city, his wings beating in my ears, the wind blowing my hair and freezing my cheeks. Above us it became overcast and threatened a storm. He dropped quite suddenly somewhere near the city center; soon I caught the dusty odor of light summer rain falling on the streets. Below us lay the vast exhibition complex built on reclaimed dockland and filled, as it often was during these summer months, almost to capacity. We landed, entered, saw me parties of children being guided round the displays, adults coming in from the showers to wander unsystematically and miss large sections. Few took any notice of us: there were many rare and unique objects already there.
Azrael began his self-appointed task by breathing over a case of early cylindrical bowls and goblets enameled with the arms of long-dead royalty and they melted altogether. Briefly the hall was swept with molten glass soon to be met by rivers of silver (from a collection of English rococo) and gold. Everything seen or touched dissolved into the gathering rainbow eddying over our feet. Statues in bronze and clay fused into each other and into rivulets of running iron and concrete. The people who had entered the building were as exposed to the angel as the objects they were admiring; when he appeared he deformed their bodies instantly into chaotic masses of bone and flesh unable to repel or resist the wild, straining fluids. Everything and everyone became the lake in the time it took us to pass through the center’s different sections. And the lake slopped against the walls until the death-angel melted the whole structure — roof, balconies, walls, pillars — into it so that it flowed freely over, beneath, and on every side of us, the only thing I could see. Azrael paused and for a moment he pondered. I sensed he was working on what the most feasible action was. Then a decision was made, the eyes in his arms, stomach, and hips glared; he gestured to me to hold his waist and he held out his gnarled, leathery hands, palms down. Once more the effect was peculiar and complete. From the lake’s outer edge, kaleidoscopic torrents rushed toward us. I felt a desperate pressure, standing as we were in the tempestuous core, as different materials twined, molded, comressed themselves into a single, monolithic creation. And the wind and the roar of this coming together thundered in my ears. Then I realized, when the noise stopped, that we stood inside the black, cold belly of something very solid.
We flew into light and space from this new, physical presence. It dwarfed the city’s towers of brick and steel. I inspected the surface, ran my fingers over it. Most of it was smooth and polished like the glass from which it partly came, but scanning its height I could see, now and then, part of an iron spar, a skull, a twinkle of marble or onyx, a tatter of rope, a shattered human hand flattened indivisibly against the surface: for the exhibition palace and all its contents had been decomposed and recombined.
However, the angel of death had no interest at all in this since he had known in advance what the outcome would be. My own interest lay in gaining a better perspective, a view of the whole. So we flew until I could turn and distinguish the shape of a monument or gravestone, totally smooth for the most part, and inscribed with the city’s name. And beneath the inscription were two dates: to the left was the year of its birth, to the right the present year. I said to Azrael, “If that is a gravestone, where is the grave?”
Some of his eyes had closed (he appeared quite tired by his effort), but those still open watched the boulevards, shops, offices, and the skyline behind. For a brief spell I saw the great divide shining in his face and knew that the monument told of a sacrifice” soon to be witnessed by one man. As we flew farther into the city I regretted the bright clothes I wore, my lack of something funereal.
The angel of death set his feet on the main highways, and these and the streets adjoining them soon lost their purpose. Vehicles on them rusted badly in seconds and slowed to a halt. The streets led nowhere. Many attempted to leave the city, first by transport then by walking, but always the roads returned them to the point of their departure. At last the people abandoned these attempts and sat alone or in groups, resigned to watch silently the city’s collapse.
But few homes and offices adjusted to the directionless, meaningless streets or the presence of the ruinous angel on them. Most of them fled, leaving familiar sites and views. They would up with a heave and a sigh of masonry and drag their foundations sometimes for miles to relocate themselves in lightly wooded city parks, the acres of waste-ground left by the demolition squads, and car dumps. Sometimes people were victims of a house’s panic. On one occasion, a detached villa began to desert its avenue only to topple dangerously when a foundation wall parted from the rest. The sudden tilt must have sent the family crashing to the floor and an accident downstairs quickly produced a fire, which spread through the rooms. A child leaned out of his bedroom and only half-awake, said in a surprised voice, “Ah, ah, help me. Help me, Mummy.” The home, panicking now over its loss of momentum and the flames eating into it, carried out its initial plan in a spasm of energy, shooting through a garden fence and across a school playground. The fiery ball sped into the distance like a comet and left a trail of gray, cloudy smoke in its wake.
Many streets emptied. The departure was usually slow, the homes taking care to negotiate routes in built-up areas. Streets were left to themselves, beginning and ending nowhere. Only the sites and the houses’ tracks and a loosened refuse of bricks and mortar remained. The houses came to rest anywhere they considered safe and so they scattered in a haphazard array. A river bisected the city and numerous dwellings crowded into the tunnel beneath it, bunching up to recover a sense of security. Several small bungalows crawled into a multi-story car park.
Azrael coughed (I think unintentionally) and the city’s inhabitants were afflicted with a vast array of plagues and fevers. Nobody noticed this except me. The very young and the very old, lacking the adults’ strength, had fallen asleep by early afternoon and had entered a deep and invincible coma; the others ambled in silence or sat numb to the world. They could not see the monument or the ulcers, sores and poisons which infected them. But the grim, miasmic plagues spread rapidly. For my part, all I could do was disregard these afflictions and the hordes of insects and animal scavengers who, excited by and immune to the general decay, attacked the people with quite amazing ferocity.
By this time the city was confused about what it should be. Many deceased buildings reappeared to fill the gaps left by the deranged retreat of the existing ones as if the city was trying to rebuild itself from memories of its past. But the attempt was forlorn and mismanaged because often these relics were summoned only to crumble away since the lay of the land had shifted and their weight was unsupported. For a time, however, I witnessed the past parading through the paralyzed streets, over the gathering mountains of rubble. And out of their graves the city’s dead citizens came in a dismal storm of corpses to toast its demise. All were dressed for the occasion. Earth-encrusted skulls cackled happily or moaned in despair and dejection (for some owned an eternal love for their city) above outdated army tunics or merchant luxury, finely embroidered dresses or priestly robes. They consumed what food and drink there was left in the chaos quickly for they were ravenous after their long abstinence. And the living were content enough to squat together in sickly groups and watch the corpses indulge.
From the start, the death-angel distanced himself from the revel. Then, struck by sudden impatience, he gestured at the cavorting masses, driving them back below the soil like soundly beaten dogs. His mood altered again, his face showed a fresh determination. The eyes lost their blood-redness and instead took on a pale, cold, and tenuous gray; leaking long wisps of mist which were blown through the city. When the buildings were enveloped, the mist seeping into the walls and dripping into their insides, their souls departed, their strength vanished so that flat, empty derelicts of silence remained. The citizens breathed the mist into their lungs and sighed as their flesh turned to gossamer. Their shadows took their leave of them and their bodies floated and twisted this way and that to fall finally into the sea or onto the hills to the north. All that remained was ethereal silence sniffing round the empty, flat-as-cardboard ruins. A grave around its stone.
I shielded my eyes when the sun breached the clearing mist to reflect the monument. “My family will be awaiting me,” I said to the angel and he in turn made his farewell, growing rapidly in size since his sacrifice (and the ability he showed) had, he informed me, just been accepted. Immensely relieved, he grew till he was larger than the heavens, and east and west were placed between his hands, and taking back his throne, he left this world and entered the next.