ARIADNE, I LOVE YOU
by J. Ashley-Smith
RELEASE DATE: July 20, 2021
GENRE: Dark Fantasy / Horror
Jude is dragged out of Alt-Country obscurity, out of the dismal loop of booze and sadness baths and the boundless, insatiable loneliness, to scrub up and fly to Australia for a last, desperate comeback tour. Hardly worth getting out of bed for—and he wouldn’t, if it weren’t for Coreen.
But Coreen is dead. And, worse than that, she’s married. Jude’s swan-song tour becomes instead a terminal descent, into the sordid past, into the meaning hidden in forgotten songs, into Coreen’s madness diary, there to waken something far worse than her ghost.
“She told me she wanted a cat,” Ben said. We were in the kitchen of his Newtown terrace. The windows were steamed. Ben’s glasses, too. He reached into the pot with a slotted spoon and teased out a quill of pasta, tested it, pulled a face.
I was perched on a stool at the breakfast bar, beneath a rack of dangling pans. Ben uncorked another red, raised his eyebrows and waved the bottle in my direction. I nodded and knocked back what was in my glass, held it out for him to fill.
“And she banged on and on about it, wouldn’t let it go. You know what kids are like.”
“I can imagine,” I said, but was only half listening. Since I arrived that afternoon, Ben had talked about nothing but parenthood, the quirks and foibles of this or that offspring. I stifled a yawn between pressed lips, washed it down with another glug of red.
“Anyway, I was this close to going down the shelter and picking one out, when I twigged: it wasn’t a pet she wanted, it was a cadaver.” Ben tasted the sauce, started laying out bowls for us and the girls. “I said no, of course. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.”
“Is this all since . . .” I couldn’t bring myself to say it. We hadn’t yet spoken about Coreen.
Ben shook his head. “Nah, Margot’s pretty much always been a dark one; ‘scientific,’ she’d call it. The bones thing started with a wombat skull she found last time we were down the train. This kitchen’s been like a mortician’s lab ever since. We’ve had birds, rats, lizards, all stretched out on the chopping board to be skinned and dissected, the bones boiled clean. I’m not even sure they’re all dead when she finds them.”
I pulled a face, hoping it conveyed the expected emotion. I’d caught a glimpse of Margot’s room on my last piss stop. The velvety purple walls, the gleaming bell jars, the displays of mounted animal skeletons and antique taxidermy. It was more like a ghoulish private museum than an eight-year old’s bedroom.
“Couple of months after I shut it down, she came home with something in a plastic bag. It stank, and flies were buzzing.” Ben shook his head again. “Our neighbor’s cat had been hit by a car and Margot scooped it out of the gutter and brought it home. Christ, what a mess! I had to help her disembowel it, and the bloody thing was so big we had to go down the hardware store for an industrial-size pot.”
I glanced over Ben’s shoulder at the pot on the stove, wisps of vapor curling from the rim.
“The kitchen stank for weeks. And I still can’t look the Habibis in the eye.”
“Is dinner ever going to be ready?”
Peg erupted into the kitchen, a five-year-old whirlwind of strawberry-blonde hair and rainbow tie-dye. She seemed to explode out of another dimension, where standing still was a capital crime and every object on the floor a stepping-stone. I scooped up my bag and put it on the stool beside me.
“Just serving now,” said Ben. “Go tell your sister.”
Ben laid the table and invited me to sit, spooned pasta and sauce into the bowls, garnished all but one with some chopped green stuff. He was just tearing the bread when Peg burst back in, Margot walking stiffly behind her.
My heart stopped when I looked up and I prickled all over, like I was seeing a ghost.
Margot was the mirror image of her mother, but at the same time not like her at all—a waxwork, both identical and wrong. Her hair was the same midnight black, but unlike Coreen’s it hung in a straight, neat bob. Her skin had the same powdery whiteness, but on Margot it looked ashen, almost consumptive. And the thought of Coreen in a starched white blouse and old-style charcoal pinafore was absurd.
In two details, though, she was completely identical, and it was these that held me dangling over the pit in my own stomach. Her mouth was pulled down at the edges in a frown that I knew would express both amusement and displeasure. And her eyes—
I realized I was staring and flicked my gaze around the walls, as though Margot was just one piece in a gallery full of other, more diverting exhibits.
She looked at me without interest.
“You must be the one from Daddy’s band,” she said.
I ignored the slight, forced a smile. “The one and only,” I said. “I’ve known your dad since back in the day.”
“His name is Jude, Margot,” Ben said. “Peg. Fork.”
Peg’s head was tilted to one side as she shoveled pasta into her mouth by the handful. Her face, from cheek to chin, was slick with smears of bright red sauce. She looked at me and grinned, her wide-open mouth a grinder of tumbling, half-chewed food.
“I brought the old album.” I turned to Ben, though it was for Margot’s benefit that I said it; for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to look at her. “Thought it might be good for a listen.”
“Yay yay yay!” Peg went manic. She was out of her seat, stomping and jumping around the chair, food flying as she yelled. “The album! The album! Let’s listen to Daddy’s album!”
“You still with Mack?” Ben asked.
“Pretty much,” I said, protecting my glass from Peg’s flailing. “He crawled out of the woodwork fast enough when this show came up. Said he’d be over in a week or two, to crack the whip, take his cut.”
“You got anything on the way?”
“Nothing new. Though Mack was pushing for a Best Of to tie in with the show.” I shrugged. “Not going to happen now, unless he plans to burn them himself.”
Ben laughed, topped up my glass.
“I enjoyed your last one,” he said. “Couple of nice little numbers. Not a patch on Troubled Heart, mind. But you must’ve known that was a one-off; pure bloody magic from go to whoa. What was the single again?”
“‘Baby, Leave Your Man,’” I said, and felt my heart pound to speak those words aloud in front of Ben. “That was the big one.”
“With the harmonies? Bloody magic that one.”
Peg had forgotten about dinner, twirled round and round the table like a runaway drill. It made me tense and giddy, but Ben didn’t seem to notice. Margot watched her sister without interest, lifting penne to her mouth one quill at a time.
After dinner, I snuck off to the lounge while Ben and Margot did the washing up. I sat back on the faded leather couch, knocked back more wine, picked a tune on Ben’s old acoustic. I was thinking of Coreen and didn’t notice what I was playing until I felt the pull in my chest, the crack in my throat. I would have stopped, but Peg joined me then with a toy bongo, marched, yelling, round the living room, pounding the drum not quite in time to the music. I couldn’t bring myself to sing.
When Ben came in at last, I was knelt by the stereo, sticking on the CD. He picked up the case, had a laugh at the photo. The Böring Straights. Me and Ben and the others from the old band, all done up in black-and-white suits, half corporate, half Reservoir Dogs, trying way too hard to look rock’n’roll.
Ben tossed back the case and I looked down at it, realized I was stalling until Margot was in the room. I looked at my younger self, felt a twinge of something that might have been sadness, might have been just the hollow feeling of lost time.
I pushed play, cranked the volume. The opening bars of “I Wanna Be Incorporated” blasted out and Peg went nuts, full-on moshing round the room. Ben lay back in an easy chair, eyes closed, an almost-grin tweaking the edge of his mouth. I stretched along the couch with my feet up, half caught in the mistakes I’d obsessed over since the album was first pressed, half checking the others’ reactions. Margot was perched on the pouf in the corner with an unreadable expression.
As each song juddered to a stop or rang out in a squall of feedback, I found I was holding my breath, my right hand clenched into a fist. And my mind was clenched just as tight, second-guessing, as each new song started, what Margot would like about it. Or dislike. Trying to gauge, from the smallest reactions, what her feelings were for this thing I had created. Or whether she had feelings for it at all.
When she got up in the middle and left, I felt as though part of me had broken.
1. What inspired you to write this book?
This story was conceived over many years – close on two decades – and was simmering away under the surface for much of that time, growing, evolving. The first piece of inspiration was the title (about which, more below). I wrote an early version of the story – a much, much bleaker version, with fewer characters and no supernatural elements – in my twenties, but didn’t finish it as it didn’t really work. But it bubbled away out of sight until I moved to Australia in 2006.
When we first moved here, my wife and I lived in a train carriage in the New South Wales bush. It’s a pretty desolate spot – in a beautiful way. Our closest neighbour was half a mile away, and the further neighbours completely unseen, unheard. I was alone there for a week, while Rosie went overseas, and for a few days of that week was completely freaked out – by snakes and spiders, by the isolation, by the dark. One night I was out in the dark and saw a light moving down in the gully, like someone walking around with a flashlight. Only there wasn’t anyone for miles. It terrified me. I didn’t think at the time, “This will work with that story.” But over the years that followed, the train, the light, that original story, and the music career I’d turned my back on shortly before I left England, all grew together, became somehow fused.
I don’t remember what triggered me to finally sit down and write the present story. I think it was just ready to be written.
2. What, if anything, did you learn when writing the book?
To trust completely in my instinct, that part of me that keeps churning away on an idea even when I’m not looking at it directly.
I did not have a clear direction for the story when I sat down to write it. I had a setting, a history, a central idea, and one or two scenes. I had the first chapter clear in my head, and I could hear the start of the second, knew that I wanted it to jump sharply and disorientingly in both time and place straight to unattributed dialogue. But that was about it. The rest was conceived in the dark of my first son’s bedroom as, night after night, I lay beside him trying to settle him to sleep. Lying there, not writing but thinking, imagining, I was stirring up the unconscious, instinctual mind, giving it license to mull on the story through the rest of the day. That was perhaps the first time that I began truly to trust what it came back with, and to just go with it.
3. What surprised you the most in writing it?
The character of Margot and her significance to the story. I don’t remember where the idea for her came from, don’t recall ever having had a sense of her outside the story. She seemed to emerge fully formed, a truly heartless child with a death obsession and a gruesome hobby. The realities of being mother to such a child became an important part of Coreen and what happened to her, and Margot grew to play a central, though veiled, role in the secret – possibly supernatural – events around which the story revolves.
4. What does the title mean?
As I mentioned above, the title came first – it was the seed out of which the whole story grew. It’s a quote, a ‘madness’ letter that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote to Cosima Wagner, wife of composer Richard. Nietzsche descended into insanity in the last years of his life, and wrote a series of letters, wahnbriefe, to friends, to strangers, to royalty. The letter he wrote to Cosima read simply, “Ariadne, I love you!” and was signed “Dionysos.” The idea of a madness diary, and of an incendiary note sent from a brooding unrequited lover, became central to the story, all unfolding from this title.
5. Were any of the characters inspired by real people? If so, do they know?
Simply, no. I never base characters on real people, not directly anyway. If people I know or have known ever appear in my stories, it’s as body parts, disconnected character traits, separate pieces pulled apart then put back together in Frankenstein’s monster form. Of course, it’s not at all as coldly scientific as that, and if I’m borrowing this or that trait or characteristic from a person, it happens at a level below consciousness.
Characters emerge for me on the page, they write themselves into existence and then simply are, as though they have always been.
6. Do you consider the book to have a lesson or moral?
I tend to steer clear of moralising in stories. I like things to be morally ambiguous, open to interpretation. If I was pushed to find a lesson in there, what would I say? “Smoking yourself to death is bad for your health.” Or maybe, “Careful what you wish for.”
7. What is your favorite part of the book?
Oh goodness, do I have to pick one? A few scenes are particularly resonant for me… Ben preparing dinner while relating Margot’s grim hobby. Jude’s discovery of the Place of Bones. Ben recounting, late at night, his version of what happened to Coreen. This last I like in particular because it shows another side of Ben, who seems throughout the rest of the story to be largely impermeable, always cheerful, unaffected – in a very British way – by misfortune. The scene shows what lies underneath that skin of positivity. It makes Ben very real to me.
8. Which character was most challenging to create? Why?
Probably the narrator and protagonist, Jude. In some ways he wasn’t challenging – he had a very clear voice that emerged early as I wrote him; through the filter of his personality and experience, many scenes popped into sharp relief. What was hard was to make someone so fundamentally selfish, obsessive, amoral, inconsiderate; someone whose actions throughout the story are essentially reprehensible; someone, in short, who it is difficult to like; how to make such a person compelling enough, likeable enough, to endure a whole story with.
9. What are your immediate future plans?
Finishing all the things! I’m just putting the final touches to a short story collection, which includes two previously unpublished novellas. As soon as that’s wrapped, I’m moving on to the final revisions of a novel I’ve been working at on and off for the last five years. I’m very excited at the prospect of completing these two big projects, and look forward to bringing them into the world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
J. Ashley-Smith is a British–Australian writer of dark fiction and other materials. His short stories have twice won national competitions and been shortlisted seven times for Aurealis Awards, winning both Best Horror (Old Growth, 2017) and Best Fantasy (The Further Shore, 2018). His novella, The Attic Tragedy, was released by Meerkat Press in 2020 and has since been shortlisted for an Aurealis Award, an Australian Shadows Award, and a Shirley Jackson Award.
- lives with his wife and two sons in the suburbs of North Canberra, gathering moth dust, tormented by the desolation of telegraph wires.
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