Sonic Hell

After four years in Hollywood, that town where all dreams came to die, the entity known to the authorities as Maxwell Shelderson the Third and to the general public as Max Shell had to admit it – life was usually pretty fucking good. Or it was until his engineer quit this morning.

Right when it was going great, right when his hot new find Satyriasis were grooving with a titanic monster of an album, the idiot engineer had to quit. Tinnitus. It always brought those humans down in the end.

Max had made his reputation in a little more than record time, literally and figuratively. On arriving in Hollywood four years ago on the specific orders of his mistress, it took him no time at all to discover that the movie business wasn’t quite his cup of tea. For one thing, they worked you to the bone, and he had much better uses for his.

Once upon a time, when hair bands were the next big thing and all the noise on the Strip, aspiring deadbeats in bandanas had made Cambion Studios the place for wannabe rock stars to record their demos in the hopes of multimillion dollar record deals.

A few bands succeeded, going on to fame and fortune before the drugs, the decadence, Machiavellian record contracts and VH1 TV specials did them in, but by then, Cambion had a reputation for being the place any self-respecting metal band began their illustrious careers.

That was over twenty years ago. Since the original owner was forced to sell off Cambion to pay the legal fees for a coke bust, Cambion slowly but surely slid into a state of metal fatigue. As the world moved on and bands went to other, better-equipped studios, a series of fly-by-night owners and the general decline of the music industry reduced it to a fifth-rate studio complex waiting for a wrecking ball to happen.

That was the day Max walked in the door, pretended to work there, and took about five minutes to figure out the layout, the logistics and his own battle plans for domination.

Two weeks later, no one dreamed of questioning his right to be there, just as no one ever wondered whether he had anything to do with the owner’s missing torso and later the head that emerged in the Chiquita Canyon landfill. It was only identified thanks to an enterprising forensic officer and a ten-year-old charge for DWI.

That just meant the bank knocked off sixty percent of the asking price when Max showed up with a checkbook to buy the studios.

Six months, a state-of-the-art renovation, an expensive PR makeover and two new releases later, Cambion Studios was an instant sensation. Metal bands came running to be reinvented by Max Shell, producer extraordinaire, for he could do what everyone said they wanted and everyone else got so horribly wrong – he could create a veritable sonic Hell on Earth. Not the Hell of limited human imagining and misguided metalheads but Hell as it once truly was, with its unearthly, inciting mix of mayhem and madness, metal and opera, music and emotion.

So they came, those boys and young men who thought rock’n’roll was a better option than working for a living, they came with all their own visions of what they wanted to say, what they wanted to do with their music, and if they were unsure of what directions to take or what options to choose, Max took great pains to teach them. To be fair, he had an edge or two on the competition.

He was the last remaining incubus on Earth. He was taught by his mistress to hide his tracks well, to be infinitely discreet and not to give himself away too much, but humans were so vulnerable, and women were so curious. In the course of four years, more than one young woman was found dead after what the LAPD coroner determined had been a night to remember, and that last, fatal night of their lives always belonged to Max.

What could he do? He had to feed. Those girls who came to the studios and hung around, hoping for a way out just as much as those hungry bands in his studios, girls with starving, khol-rimmed eyes and fishnet legs, girls with black talons and black talents, girls who begged to be abused didn’t take too long to discover that Max, with his Maserati and his money and his tall, inhumanly perfect self, with his prerequisite, long back hair and piercing blue eyes, was a much better deal than the dirty unwashed dudes who just wanted to screw their guitars.

Meanwhile, he needed an engineer, and a break, and to go home to the house in the Hollywood Hills that kept his own filthy little secret, a secret none of the music journalists who interviewed him ever knew.

A very human, very pregnant secret named Abbie.

Original image by Joe Chiodo

With special thanks to Tiger Powers.

Manhattan at 3 AM



He bolted upright in an instant, shocked aware and awake. It wasn’t a dream, since he never dreamed, had no need to clear out the mental cobwebs of the day as humans did. Yet something woke him up. What was it?

Beside him, she slept the sleep of the jetlagged, dead to the world and everything in it. Only a few hours before, she had returned from Sydney on a promotional tour for her latest novel. His baby was a literary superstar now, and pieces of her were wanted on five continents. There was no sign of the lionized writer in the bump under the duvet, only her disheveled hair trailing over the pillow, both cats snuggled up against her other side. Hogni opened one glowing amber eye as he got out of bed.

They were Freya’s cats, disguised as the pampered owners of a dedicated cat lover, but these two were no mere cats. He held his fingers to his lips and winked. She winked back. “Look after her,” he whispered in the dark, and drew the duvet up higher over her. Hogni opened her other eye, gave him a disdainful stare, sighed and stretched out further, showing off her long, luxurious belly fur.

In the living room, he walked to the window and stared out at West 23rd Street down below. Manhattan thrummed its 3 AM hum of sleepless ambition and voracious dreams this chilly October night, even the faraway sirens a little quieter at such a dead hour.

What could have woken him up? Not a dream, but some intuition…something that tasted of danger, danger to him, danger to her, to all of them, a kind of danger that shouldn’t even have existed any longer. They had all of them made certain to catch everything four years ago, all made sure there was nothing left on this blue planet except humanity, that singular species that was so like him in its restive, roiling, endless curiosity. Nothing at all left of his former domain, not even what he himself had been, which was precisely what he wanted, to leave that old, former self with all its bitter memories behind him and become as human as he could and live a life as humans did.

The Guardian of nightmares and negatives was… no more. No one in a city so enamored of surface and show ever suspected the truth – that he wasn’t human at all. These days, he was just another New York artist so far as anyone knew, freezing that kingdom of his past in his Dumbo studio onto canvas in near-photographic detail and vibrant, pulsing color. He constructed his chosen identity from the ruins of his former self, conjuring a growing reputation for painting creatures and scenes of horror in audacious, fluid, erotic ways no one dared before. The New York art world was always on the hunt for the new discovery, the different, the next big name, and the scenes he painted with their Horde creatures and chimerae in motion, exactly as they once had been in Hell, were getting attention and write-ups, just as he himself with his one name and his rock-star demeanor.

Deva or Devil, god or nightmare, it was the same name and the same meaning, so he named himself Dev as his beloved once did, painted it on his canvas in carmine with a precise Elizabethan calligraphic flourish, and laughed in private that those Chelsea galleries and their susceptible foreign clients were so gullible, so easy to manipulate.

He turned away from the window and looked across the dark living room. Her suitcase parked on the floor still unpacked, her travel clothes and the Converse All-Stars she refused to give up danced a tango across the floor and told their story of a happy homecoming, jet lag be damned.

That sense of danger, that faint taste of some unknown terribly, utterly wrong out there on the other side of the window, didn’t leave him. He tiptoed back into the bedroom and pulled on clothes, ran a brush through his hair, and closed the door softly behind him. She would be safe with her feline bodyguards while she slept. Or so he hoped as he left the loft and headed for Ditmas Park, Saint Peter and an explanation.

“This had better be good, asshole. I was asleep for a big fucking change.” Saint Peter’s deep baritone rumbled in the dark green room, with only the lamp on his desk to banish the Brooklyn 4 AM shadows. He looked rather rumpled himself in a khaki t-shirt and black sweatpants as he pushed his hair out of his face.

Dev sighed, drummed his end of the Chesterfield sofa for a moment as he thought and finally asked:  “Where is everybody?”

“Fulla is way asleep.” Saint Peter showed his canines. Dev filled in the blanks. “Freya …who knows? She comes and goes. Sweetpea came back from Sydney last night, right?”

“She did. She’s dead to the world. Leave her. She doesn’t need to know about this, and neither does Fulla unless we don’t have a choice.”

“So what was it?” Two gargantuan bare feet planted themselves on the coffee table. “Fuck, I’m tired. I thought we scoured the planet four years ago to make sure nothing was left.”

“Apparently, we missed one. I’m telling you…there’s something out there. Or someone. I felt it.”

“Any bright ideas, genius?”

“A few.” Dev ran his fingers through his hair, tried to organize his thoughts. “One of the Lilith faction, maybe, someone who managed to hide away when Samael and I went hunting. That’s as far as I got.” He shifted on the sofa. This should not be happening. He was happy now in his New York idyll, doing what he loved with the woman he wanted.

“How can they?”

“They can if they’re clever enough. If they can find a human to latch onto, they can. Which means it’s either a succubus, and I rather doubt that in the circumstances, or an incubus.”

“So we’re going downstairs, then?”

“We don’t have much of a choice, do we?” Dev sighed.

“Should I start tracking it down?” Saint Peter was a genius with a computer, could hack into any database anywhere without a trace, find anyone on Planet Earth.

“Not yet. Let’s go have a look first. If there’s anything to see.”

“Place is sealed off tighter than Fort Knox. It’s empty. Still. Can’t be too careful, doncha know.””

“Yeah. I know. If it is an incubus, he can’t get back in. That’s a start.”

Two huge feet landed on the floor as Saint Peter stood up. “Should I rally the troops?”

“Only Sophia. For now. Until we know more.” Dev rose too and tried to shake off a feeling of dread in his bones.

Down they went those familiar three flights of spiral stairs, down to where he hadn’t been in four Earth years, through the steel door and down the long corridor with all its anonymous steel doors. So many memories, most of them bad. Except one. Sweetpea in Leviathan’s black suede, taking him up against that wall over there, negating the encompassing horror of where he was headed now.

They arrived at one of the doors, Saint Peter swiped the card, scanned his left eye, and it opened with a hiss Dev thought he would never hear again.

The steel balcony was still there, the thin tubes of fluorescent lighting that ran down and along the floor of the vast space lit up as they approached, and according to the plan and all their work, this behemoth container should hold nothing at all except shadows and the echoes off the concrete floor. Yet it did.

A thin rivulet of a black and formless mass that sparked in the dim lighting flowed in a clockwise spiral toward the center of the space, swirling around the shadowy center point like water down a drain.

It was true. When he left four years ago, he had been so sure, so certain that every last scrap and manifestation of his former domain was utterly obliterated, only recreated on his canvasses now as an artistic fiction no human would ever mistake for anything else.

H watched that endless, swirling motion and for only the second time in his earthly existence, his blood ran cold.

They had missed one. Out of all those hundreds of thousands, they had missed exactly… one.

“Fuck!” Saint Peter sighed. “You were right. Now what?”

“We have to check the other container. That might give us a clue.”

“OK.” They turned away and left, the door sealing shut behind them with a hiss. Saint Peter entered a code in the security lock. “Better safe than sorry.”

Through another, identical door in the corridor and another steel balcony, and sure enough, below, a similar, paper-thin rivulet swirled around and around a shadowy central drain, yet this one was anything but black. It glowed against the dun of the concrete in all the colors and shades and perfume of its existence as it swirled and danced.

Dev lifted his hand and held out his palm. This much, he could still do. A tendril leapt up from the floor and curled over the balcony, before it eddied and whirled and congealed into an oblong the size of an olive, warm and pulsing against his skin.

For a moment, he had to fight a feeling of revulsion that rose to the back of his throat like bile, and that told him even more.

He curled his fingers around it and tossed it back as hard as he could over the balcony railing, watched as it smashed into a thousand shattered fragments of color on the floor far, far away from the center, before it again congealed into a pearlescent blob of hue and scent that inched its way back to the rivulet in the middle.

“Let’s go,” he heard himself growl at Saint Peter. “I know what I need to know.”

Only when they were back in the study with their feet up on the coffee table did Saint Peter ask.

“So what do you know?”

“It’s an incubus. He’s latched on to a woman somewhere in the world, someone who is grateful, someone who isn’t used to that kind of attention. She fell in love. He’s feeding off that, feeding off a few others, too, so far as I could tell. God fucking damn it!” Dev hammered his fist into the coffee table. “Damn it!”

“Dude…it’s just one. What’s the big deal? I do the research, you hunt him down, end of the story.”

Dev turned around. “You’re forgetting something.” He sighed, a loud lament of a kind Saint Peter had never heard before in over four hundred years of acquaintance.

Suddenly, Saint Peter’s human blood ran cold in the quiet room, far colder than the pre-dawn chill outside the windows.

“You’re forgetting…I’m not the Devil any more. I can’t destroy it. And if this incubus has found a woman, it can breed more of its kind.”