Bogleech.com's 2019 Horror Write-off:
Submitted by Shakara
Marina’s Antiques. From gramophones, dusty grandfather clocks, old instruments, paintings and even Victorian miscellanea. Sophie was a regular there, always fascinated by the old inventions.
Marina rushed to the counter, more than eager to tell the girl of the most recent item.
“Yes, I’d just found it. Far at the back of the shop.”
“Well, that is old.”
“Dusty. Very dusty. It must’ve been left in the rear storage for quite some time. I could’ve sworn I cleaned up in there yesterday...”
Marina pulled the old item into the room. It was wide, and covered with a tarp, more cobweb than canvas. In one swift flourish, she swept the tarp off the item.
The dark wood, though old was finely polished, and the pictures inside were relatively clean. It was around the size of a drum, but could still be held in Marina’s hands.
“I must say, I thought all the zoetropes of Victorian times had become lost. I’m sure this one will fetch a pretty penny.”
Sophie looked inside, wondering what the pictures would be of. Nothing special, just a painting of a Victorian boy, clad in a waistcoat and looking out at the viewer.
“Let’s spin it.”
Marina held the rim gently and span it about. Sophie looked through the slits.
The Victorian boy looked out at the viewer, blinking. The background behind him span from a pale blue day with a smiling gold sun, to a rich, royal-blue night with a sleepy silver moon. And such good detail in the painting! When it turned from day to night, the lighting made it seem as if he were being lit up by the sun and moon. The grasses and flowers swayed back and forth in time.
“I’ll take it!”
“You always did have an affinity for antiques, Sophie.”
Sophie set up the zoetrope in the living room, next to the old ottoman, carved coffee table and chaise lounge. She set it to spin, watching as day turned to night and the well-dressed boy blinked. He must’ve been about 12 or 11. Seemed more like a photograph than a drawing.
Though anybody else would’ve become bored with such a trinket, but Sophie did not. Every day she found something else beautiful about it. The detail of the stars in the night, even finding constellations. The craters of the moon. The soft flowers in the grassy field background. The folds and weaves of the boy’s waistcoat. The detail of his hair. Sometimes she found herself jumping as she passed, mistaking it for a window, only to remember what it was.
It became a regular piece in her home. Sometimes she’d show it to guests, or spend whole weekend afternoons watching it spin. Life resumed and the zoetrope eventually decreased in interest, turning from ‘elegant device’ into ‘simple décor’. Days, weeks, months.
When winter came, her parents came to visit.
“Ooh, I love what you’ve done with the place, dear.” Mother spoke.
Father was looking at the other Victorian miscellanea, currently immersed in an oil painting of a hunt.
“Are you gonna dress up in a hoop-dress and call yourself ‘madame’? It feels like I’ve travelled back in time!”
“Oh, shtum, I won’t go that far. I like history, but I don’t want to start wearing corsets or anything.”
“Just joking. … What’s this thing?” He’d found the zoetrope.
“Oh, that’s the zoetrope! Take a look!” She set it to spin, spell-bound by the detail and smoothness of how each frame span past. He didn’t seem impressed. If anything, he looked unsettled.
“I mean, is it meant to look like that?”
“The boy. He looks… sad.”
“What are you…” She looked back at the picture. It did seem like his face had changed. What was once a neutral, almost curious expression had now changed to a downcast visage. She began to feel sad herself. “I… thought it looked different.”
“Does it cycle through faces?”
She span it about faster, rapidly flicking from night and day. “… No. Just the one face. … Huh.”
“It must be some odd Victorian art thing. They never did smile in their photographs.” Mother said.
“I suppose so.”
The remainder of the day passed. Sophie cooked dinner, poured cordials and they had a good time catching up on what they’d done in the interim. They left and Sophie cleaned up.
When nightfall arrived, she looked back to the zoetrope. She could’ve sworn the face looked more neutral, not despondent. She spun it about and a chill went down her spine.
The boy’s face had gotten sadder. It wasn’t crestfallen now, but practically mournful. His face was lower, eyes looking down, mouth twisted as if he were about to cry.
Was this some elaborate joke? Was there an assortment of pictures that cycled through emotions as it spun about? Almost risking breaking the device, she began to take out the pictures, glad they were numbered on their respective tiles.
… No. No other pictures of other expressions. She turned the lights on. It was no illusion.
Was she getting enough sleep? Replacing the tile, she made herself some cocoa and went to bed.
Time passed on, and Sophie didn’t sit in front of the zoetrope anymore. She just looked at it from time to time, still seeing that mournful face. She didn’t talk about it when guests arrived anymore, only allowing them to see it.
“Uh, Sophie? This boy is crying! Why would you want this in your home?”
“Art’s sake, I reckon…” Let them look at it. She wouldn’t set her eyes upon it.
After the third guest’s visit, and their observation that the boy looked practically grievous, she went back to Marina’s Antiques.
“The zoetrope? … To be entirely honest, I don’t have any idea where it came from. Someone must’ve delivered it around the back.”
“Do you keep records of every antique you have?”
“Kind of? I’ll need to check, though.” She heaved out an old plastic folder and perched her spectacles atop her nose, reading through tables of names.
“I’ve owned this shop for many years, so my memory is a bit foggy… … No. No record of the zoetrope arriving. Either it was from a previous owner, or I didn’t write it down. Sorry, Sophie.”
“Hm. That’s alright”
“Do you want to return it?”
She didn’t want to visualise it again.
“No. … What’s the history of the zoetrope?”
“I know it was once called the ‘wheel of the devil’, as people didn’t know how the pictures changed back then. Some earlier versions were pictures on a spinning pole. Lenses were put in on the later versions to improve the image, make it sharper. Other zoetropes use models rather than pictures for the illusion of movement. That’s all I know of it.”
“Thank you, Marina.”
Sophie went on with her life, yet found herself actively avoiding the living room. She didn’t read there. She didn’t sit there to watch TV, instead preferring to sit in the kitchen and watch shows on her laptop. She only went there to clean, now.
It couldn’t have been a hallucination. Could it? Her vision was fine.
May as well take another look. Just to confirm it…
She sat in front of the zoetrope, dusting it. She spun it about, seeing the gloomy boy. His hair looked longer and his clothes darker. An illusion from the dust?
She spun it faster, watching day and night flit past rapidly. The boy remained unmoving, but his face warped, like the surface of a lake in a high wind. He looked just about ready to burst into tears, hair waving in the wind. Sophie remained steadfast, sitting there to spite her childish fear.
On she spun, almost knocking the device over. Silvery trails ran down the boy’s face, not unlike a recording. His mouth moved in a silent sob, eyes pointed down. It could’ve been some trick. Hidden pictures in the zoetrope. Or was someone replacing them? But who could’ve broken in and why?
Eventually, the boy stopped crying. She unconsciously counted the days and nights zooming past. 20, 30, 40, 50… It had to be months passing in the zoetrope now. Years. The boy looked out of the frame, his face tired. His eyes were red. He looked older. She looked back as much as he looked out. Slowly, his face became eerily serene. She held the rotating drum, bringing the zoetrope to a standstill.
She had almost become convinced it had returned to normal now, back to the patient visage, the curious look. Almost. Only now, the boy’s face was pale. Very pale. Nearly sickly, but he remained looking out, eyes glistening like rain-washed stones. She set it spinning once again.
Sophie gaped in horror as his eyes turned upward until nothing remained but a bright, wet white. His cheeks hollowed as the darkening skin on his face grew taut, lips pulled up in a derisive smirk of mania. Day. Night. Day. Night. She began to feel sick. On and on, time went as the boy began to warp.
His hair pulled back from his scalp and his skin withdrew from his skull like melting frost, the muscle turned grey to match his gums. Flesh rapidly retreating, exposing pearlescent teeth in a cruel smile. She gasped as his eyes tumbled backward and vanished, leaving dark sockets exposed, until the boy’s decayed écorché was staring back at her.
“Broken? H-How?” Marina held the rotary phone receiver, aghast. Who would destroy such a piece of art? Such an old and detailed device? It was unheard of. Veritable heresy.
“Had guests over. One of them had a wee bit too much wine. Shattered it all.”
Sophie sounded positively exhausted.
“Well… I mean, that is unfortunate. … Hmm. Then again, it was an old device. Such a pity. A work of art like that only comes around once a thousand years.”
“Sorry about that… But at least I have my ottoman and paintings. I’ll treat them extra-careful.” She hung up.
Sophie didn’t remember how she did it, but she’d broken the zoetrope. Beyond the repair of any carpenter. There it lay, wood splintered and smashed, the pictures torn, her hands bloodied and ragged.
She stared at the phone for a long time, not wishing to look at the device again. She didn’t want to. Not at the boy’s face. Not again.
A few hours passed until she finally worked up the courage. She shoved the shards of wood and accursed pictures into the fireplace. After fidgeting with the matches for longer than necessary, it finally, mercifully, caught fire. She bound her hands as she watched as it burn, the bones of the boy charring and blackening.