's 2019 Horror Write-off:

Dread Inspector

Submitted by Anonymous Anomaly

It started with a train, which is nothing new. Plenty of the newer ones start with trains. This one had a fine rusty finish on the seats, so at least someone in the department was working with what they had. Despite that, I couldn’t help but make a small addendum to the transportation section of my clipboard. I used to be biased against the big tin cans, but in recent years I’ve since eased up a little. A little.

The train didn’t really “arrive”. It practically crashed into its destination, displacing me a solid 5 feet. “LAST STOP,” an automated voice ran. “YOU HAVE ARRIVED AT Aa-a-BBZRRRT-!” Cute.

The damaged train doors operated on a timer of their own. I watched their movements to learn the pattern and couldn’t help but wonder if they’d installed safety protocols yet. Sometimes the scariest part of the job was when things went unintentionally wrong. As part of standard procedure, I tested it with the safety pole and the doors halted just in time. I didn’t bother with learning the pattern after that. I just went right through.

Two pale figures greeted me at the station. Their appearance was at odds with the red and black aesthetic of the town. The one on the right was basically human. The one on the left was just a floating tentacled head. “Can you hear it?” the tall humanoid asked. “It is calling your name. It is so glad you came.”

“Cut the crap kid.” I waved the clipboard. “I’m here on business, not pleasure.”

The humanoid, bless his blighted little soul, still clung to the script. “You may not be where you intended to be.” He let out a laugh that was probably supposed to be deep and intimidating. “But you’ll find that it doesn’t matter. Not anymore.”

I tapped the clipboard with my eraser and waited for him to finish, then spoke. “What’s your name, kid?”

The humanoid clasped his fingers. “Who wants to know?”

“Goddamn you are dense. Do you see what I’m holding?” I practically waved it in his face. “I’m the bloody inspector. I’m not here to be scared and wowed by your ‘eldritch horror’, so please stop insulting my intelligence and maybe we can proceed with the tour while I’m still young.”

The humanoid muttered a choice selection of words, then turned to his associate. “This is Kevin. He’s one of the devs. You’ll want to talk to him, I guess. What the fuck do I know, right? I’m just the new guy, right?” He walked off, still muttering. I was impressed with his vocabulary.

I turned to Kevin, floating serenely. “Your friend has some deep seated insecurities.”

“You did not exactly assuage them.” Kevin extended a neck tentacle and we shook formally. “I am nevertheless glad you managed to make it. The ‘Necroville Experiment’ is in its final stages and I have put in long hours to see it through. The red and black was chiefly my idea. I think you will find it adds much.”

I tested Kevin’s grip. It seemed confident. Then I looked him in the eye. He broke contact. That was the first tell. I made a little show of checking out my clipboard and writing a fake margin note. Kevin made a little show of looking at anything but my clipboard. That was the second tell.

He waited patiently for me, then continued. “We will start with the first interior building. This is where visitors wander after their arrival.” He gestured around. “We have been very subtle in our linear design. Open concept, closed system.”

I looked around. To his credit, the path through this area of town seemed almost natural. It was only when I focused that I noticed the placement of the buildings and fences; the locked doors and the hazard tape. There really was only one direction to travel. 

Linear designs were usually regarded as a poor choice. These days people didn’t just want to have an experience, they wanted to create a personalized one. They wanted to tackle the scaries at their own pace. They wanted to feel smart. If the Necroville Experiment was linear, they either had a very good story, or they were a very doomed town. 

The first interior building was about what you’d expect. Empty. A brief saturation of grey lighting in a predominantly black and red town. Kevin explained it as being based in psychology. “A brief moment of peace. A moment of clarity. Then a return into red and black. There is an element of nausea to it all.” He wasn’t necessarily wrong. I could put myself in the headspace of a recent visitor. Someone terrified, out of their element. Someone briefly thrust into a hint of normalcy before being hurled back into the truth of it all. 

But it was all laughable, really. There would never be a terrified visitor. Every single person entering this town was entering as a tried and true cynic, chiseled to perfection over years and years of exposure. That white airy substance called vulnerability distilled and filtered out until nothing was left to scare. The room had subtlety, but it wasn’t enough. I flipped a page and added another note. This time I felt Kevin’s gaze.

A flicker of movement caught my eye. Something was flashing in one of the vents. I pointed. “What’s that? Do we ever find out what that’s supposed to be?”

“It’s small.” Kevin replied. “It’s just a small thing.” He made for the exit. I stayed put. “You didn’t really answer my question. Is that relevant?”

Two of his tendrils bent in approximation of a shrug. Kevin hesitantly explained that it was a psychological thing. 

He was really trying to sell me on the mind games but I wasn’t buying it this time. “There’s gotta be some sort of relevance. You know that. You’re a dev. What’s the plot arc here? Bio-organic infection, right? What does a seizure light have to do with anything? What kind of vent has that?”

Kevin turned and stared at me with eyes all too human for a non-human entity. Maybe deep down, he still thought he was scary simply because of what he was. If I used my imagination, I could almost envision a world where that was still true. He’d concede though. He had to. His job was on the line.

We made our way outside to the main street. Bloated red clouds glowed and dimmed, giving off the impression of a massive pulsating organism in the sky. I’d never seen that exact visual used for weather, and complemented Kevin accordingly. He informed me that it wasn’t actually him designing the weather, but another dev who went by Brian. Kevin began pointing to different objects and listing off names. “That warehouse was designed by Hailey. Most buildings are. The sky was chiefly Brian’s work. The texturing of the roa-”

“Kevin, I’m here to see the product, not the history.”

And so we did. 

The warehouse was the best part in my opinion. Our path led us between towering heaps of wooden boxes. Every now and then one of them would bump, or rattle, or even fall over completely. It was simple, but executed well. At the end we saw another pale figure go through the exit doors ahead. Once we were out of the box maze, we had the option of tracing its wet footsteps back to a busted box.

Unfortunately it was downhill from there. We entered the shop through a huge cratered hole and I read the generic evil god mythos scrawl over every wall. My clipboard had an eldritch plot line drinking game on the fourth page as an inside joke, but it wasn’t funny how much of it synced up. The shopkeeper was some barely discernible mound of skin and muscle. It marked the point when the Necroville Experiment abandoned all pretense of subtlety.

The next few areas were just meat place #1, meat place #2, and meat place #3. All of them were virtually indistinguishable, caked with samey textures and relying on gross out factor to be scary.  Even then, they weren’t up to snuff. There wasn’t enough to make them stand out as anything fresh and unusual. More scrawl revealed some cookie-cutter premise with an elder god: Xohth’ something or other. My drinking game checklist filled rapidly. Kevin saw the look on my face and assured me that things picked up later.

They didn’t. You had the locked room with the screaming woman behind it, The dark room with the voices, the blood river, the scary recording, and a host of other regulars. We saw a shadowy figure behind a window and I knew as soon as we opened the connecting doors it would be gone. This was elementary.

By the time we made it to Xohth’s lair, I’d silently dubbed the Necroville Experiment a failure. Even the gnarled aberration behind the whole thing wasn’t anything new. I was supposed to place some macguffin in some slot and banish the thing, but when Kevin looked at me I merely shrugged.

Xohth screamed and churned and growled a lot of empty threats, but picked up on things pretty quickly. I watched it lower its flailing limbs and stare me down with a massive milky eye bigger than my car. I could see my own reflection on its surface.

“Why are you not afraid?” It’s eye squinted. “The flesh of your brothers and sisters coats these walls. A town like any other has fallen to darkness. You are in a world you may never understand. How can you be calm while your reality lies slain?”

I showed it the clipboard. All the checks and crosses and margin notes. “Because my reality has already been slain. Countless times. Countless ways. It’s all the same business, and I speak for virtually every human when I say this is not up to par.” A massive branch of fingers plucked my clipboard from my fingers as results were pored over by hungry eyes. “An audience won’t get anything out of this, and as a result, neither will you.” My words were like a supernatural force, actively weakening their resolve with every word. The elder god wilted. Kevin floated lower.

Almost immediately I started feeling a little bad. The place wasn’t scary, but it was clear they tried to make it that way, and from the looks of things they’d never heard criticism this harsh. I backed up a bit. “There is something of value here but it needs to be fleshed out. I think if you tried to diverge the Necroville Experiment from its competitors you could have something memorable. I’ve listed possible additions and changes on the last page.”

I thought my speech had placated them, but Xohth had more fire inside than I gave it credit for. “You…” It rose up, knotted and angry. “You are a parasite. Your people are entitled beyond belief. All the energy to fuel the cosmos and you lock it away in your brains, demand bread and circus for it. Your race holds a cruel monopoly, inspector. We need your people and they become numb and listless in response.”

He was right. That was the irony of it all. But it wasn’t my problem. “Your people milked us dry, buddy. You and all your friends. There’s nothing to be afraid of anymore. There’s no more emotion to spare.” Xohth quaked in silent anger, but did nothing. At the end of the day, there was nothing he could do. He couldn’t really hurt me. Humans and monsters could destroy eachother if we ever went to war. Our conditions for peace neutered them far more than it did us.

“Keep the notes. Run it through with the devs.” I turned and left the lair before Xohth could say anything else. The living environment gradually gave way to the red and black of the surface. That really was the most original thing about this place. Soon I would be back to my own colors. City greys. Sky blues. The human world.

The train back home was right next to the crashed one. It didn’t bother to blend in with the environment. The sharp metallic vehicle stood out like bloated worm.

“Wait, please.”

I recognized Kevin’s voice and turned. He looked different. No longer serene. There was an animated energy about his movements. “Don’t leave just yet. There is something I would like to show you.”

My hand was on the rail. “I saw it, Kevin. I saw it all. I’ve spent a visit and a half worth of time being the candid asshole and if it’s all the same, I'd like to sleep it off.”

“No. You have not seen this.” He knotted his tentacles together like a fidgeting child. “It is… deleted content. Personal content.”

The rejection was on the tip of my tongue, but I pushed it down. I had time. Why the hell not? “You realize deleted content can’t legally influence my rating, right?” Kevin nodded. I took my hand off the railing.

We travelled back the way the crashed train had come, pushing past gradually denser clusters of dead black trees. Soon we were wandering around in the forest. I followed Kevin. We passed a point where the terrain started to loop itself and my suspicion built. I never thought he would attack me, but he could very well be out to waste my time as revenge for my behavior.

Kevin abruptly stopped. “We are here.” It didn’t look any different to me, but then I had the sense to look up. There was a part in the clouds. A huge pink planet sat in an open pool of black, casting a gentle downward glow. As I stared, pieces began to break off and flutter down. Soon the forest was being sprinkled in little crystals. 

“Not terrifying enough.” Kevin said, answering my question. “It was a side project of mine. I do not think it could scare even a pre-contact human. But something about it fascinates me.” He extended a tentacle and we watched tiny little crystals refract the light on his skin. “I do not know what it is, but you are the inspector. I thought perhaps you might.”

The crystals began to clump together, bending and focusing light into large white wisps. It reminded me of winter; a strange, whimsical little winter. I remembered earlier days. Days before college, before jobs, before the monsters and the energy crisis and the fear market. Days when my sister would build the meanest, largest snowman in the neighborhood. Days when a stunted evergreen tree meant a whole new world. My vision blurred. I felt nostalgic. I felt something.

Kevin must have felt a change too. He turned towards me with a look of puzzlement, and suddenly it all clicked. “Maybe you’re the first, Kevin. The first to adapt. To mutate. When oil ran low, we switched to fear. Now fear is running low.”

Kevin’s expression was earnest. “But what do we switch too? What is the next step? For my people? For yours?”

The planet beckoned. “Wonder. Wonder and woe.”