Hi! I’m Tonia Thompson—horror writer and creator of NIGHTLIGHT: The Black Horror Podcast. This week we have a story from the amazing Eden Royce. I’m a huge fan of Eden’s, maybe because her stories tend toward the darker side, maybe because of the gothic feel of them, but probably because her words haunt you long after you’ve left the world she created.
Eden is a full-time writer living in the UK, and as you’ll hear in her interview after the story, a fan of Edgar Allan Poe. Here’s her story, Basque of the Red Death, a tale of vengeance, corsets, and magic.
Content Warning: sexual predators, objectification of women
Basque of the Red Death
By Eden Royce
She looked like death, but the harsh Carolina sunshine made her look more attractive than she really was.
Helen’s gait faltered as she looked up at the woman peering down on her with appraisal and undisguised distaste. Old…so old. Deep lines whittled themselves into her face, causing the chalky powder to rise to the surface of her sandpaper skin. But the woman’s gaze was sharp, even weighty, and it caused Helen to stumble.
Her mother seized her arm in a mousetrap grip. “Remember what I tol’ you,” she growled close to the girl’s ear. Her breath was loaded, sour with the potent smells of dry peanut shells and day-old coffee.
The sun beat down on both of them during the walk to Miss Maggie’s and sweat gathered in the girl’s armpits and between her heavy thighs. It coursed down her back under the worn muslin of her dress like teasing fingers. Gnats taunted them, flying in their soaked faces, then deftly avoiding their clumsy fingers as the pair trudged along the hardpack dirt.
After that journey, the shaded porch was almost cool. No sun reached it through the dense overhang of ancient oaks. But there was plenty enough light for Miss Maggie to pass her judgment.
“Gal ain’t nowhere near pretty,” she said, tilting her head left then right like a bird considering a crust of bread. “No figure. And this here.” Miss Maggie leaned over the porch railing and ran a finger over the angry, inflamed pustules covering Helen’s doughy white cheek. Helen flinched. Partly from the pain as several of the imbedded pimples pressed deeper into her skin and partly from the way the soft, cool fingers seemed to slide around in their thin casings of flesh. Her mother grabbed a wedge of skin at her sow-like waist and twisted it. Hot fire shot through her side, eclipsing the pain in her face, and she froze.
“Not a sound.” This she muttered through compressed lips, but the dusty smell of sun baked peanuts and battery acid coffee hung in the sticky air.
Helen sank her teeth into her lower lip.
“Bumps, bad skin is a problem,” Maggie continued, pressing in Helen’s forehead and chin. “They’re deep.”
“How much?” the mother asked.
Maggie wiped her hands on a starched handkerchief and tossed the soiled fabric on the rocking chair behind her. A frail-looking girl, no more than eight or ten, dashed out of nowhere to provide a new cloth and remove the old one. “Not much.”
Helen watched the girl scurry away, as silent as she had come.
“She might not help you with no mens, but she can do just as good at cleanin’ and such. Better than that lil’ darky, I bet. Oh…” Her mother’s jaw went slack as though she remembered she’d left washing on the line. “Um…’scuse me, miss.”
If she was offended, Miss Maggie didn’t show it. “I already got two for cleaning and tidying and such. Twins, in fact. Enough trouble.”
“I don’ need a lot. Just need to put food on the table for the young ones. We hardly got nothin’ no more.”
Maggie sniffed. Helen wondered if she was smelling the raw grain alcohol scent that clung to her mama. It leaked from her pores, mixing with nervous perspiration to make a rank cocktail. She’d heard the jokes about her mama when people thought she was too stupid to understand. People said Henrietta Davis would spread her legs for the right amount of moonshine, but all the still owners had ridden her bike long ago. They chuckled. Now she had to open her purse, just like everyone else wanting a taste.
“This your oldest?”
Henrietta nodded, and shoved her big toe in and out of the hole in her shoe. “Oldest girl. Got a boy—most sixteen.”
“Where’s the boy?”
She didn’t meet the older woman’s eyes. “Been gone.”
“Mmph.” Maggie turned and opened the screened door to the house. “Bring her back with all her things tomorrow.”
“How much you givin’ me for her?”
“You’ll find out tomorrow.”
“I need the money now.” Her voice rose and a wildness entered her gaze.
Unaffected, Maggie held her stare. Henrietta mumbled something and wiped her hands on her own threadbare dress. “I’ll see you tomorrow then.” To her daughter, she growled, “Come on now.”
“No, you leave her with me.”
Henrietta’s doughy mouth opened around worn, leaning tombstone teeth. “She goin’ home with me.”
The ringing slap made Helen’s eyes water. The tang of blood was in her mouth like she’d sucked on a new penny.
“You want your money, she will stay with me overnight.” Maggie chuckled. “Don’t tell me you can’t find something to do with yourself for one night?” She lifted a silver pendant shaped like an old style corset, complete with tiny hook and eye closures, from where it rested against her bosom. The bodice popped open and she glanced inside. “Ten to six. Skeet’s Hardware closes soon. See what he might have for you.”
To Helen’s surprise, her mother trudged away without another word, presumably to talk with Mister Skeet. Miss Maggie looked down at her where she stood on the dry, hard-packed earth, sweating and stinging and terrified. The black woman’s eyes betrayed nothing when she spoke.
“What’s your name, gal?”
“Well, one day we’re gonna have to change that.”
He was tall, dark, and an imbecile. But he had money inherited from parents that had long ago established their importance to Charleston society, so everyone ignored his lack of sense. His flagrant disregard of the law and his cruelty they also overlooked.
“Jenkins!” His voice bordered on shrill as it rang through the historic house, reaching the third level where his house servant remade beds, replacing torn and bloodied linens as needed. “Get down here right now.”
Despite his advanced years, Jenkins made it to the first floor library before his name could be called again. “Yes, Mister Aiken, sir?”
Aiken held out his half empty glass, his feet never moving from their elevated position on the ottoman, and Jenkins refilled it with brandy.
“Have you contacted that woman to arrange for the party?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve been in contact with her on your behalf. But she still needs to know more to make your…selections.” The servant’s heavy-lidded rheumy eyes were impassive and his speech was slow, carefully precise, as though he rarely spoke so eloquently.
Aiken frowned. He hated having to prompt his staff. They should know his wishes, even anticipate them, and have them fulfilled before he thought to ask. And Jenkins had been with the Aiken family since before he was born. His father had purchased the slave from a cotton merchant in the upstate. Ungrateful shit. He’d be damned if he would let some foolhardy Yankee calling himself President tell him how to handle his property.
Reason reared its well-coiffed head. Jenkins knows about your preferences, keep him close. He was loyal to this family and that isn’t going to stop unless you make a mugger of it. Take good care.
Bryce Aiken had never listened to reason. “Don’t be foolish, man. Young, untouched, narrow waist, long hair. It’s the same every time.” He gulped the brandy down in one. “And nothing darker than an octoroon. I can’t stand that scent the full Negresses have.”
He nudged at the trembling, naked girl crouched on the floor with his foot and she wailed, a sound full of raw pain. “And get rid of this. I’m done.”
The girl pleaded with him as he dragged her out of the house, but he tried to close his ears to her. He was old now, tired—so tired—of this mess. Tired of spiriting away these girls—little more than children anyways—through the night like they were headed for the Underground Railroad.
“Don’t! No…no…help me.”
“Too late for that, innit girl? Already messed up now.” As he looked at her by the wobbly light of the small gas lantern, the bruises on her body covered by an old sheet, he saw that she had been pretty. Too bad they never left Master Aiken that way. He felt no other sympathy. Women had to bear the weight of men’s lusts or stay away from them.
“I didn’t do nothing wrong.” Her cries were now whimpers. “Where are you taking me?”
“Back home. Leave you outside the door.”
“I can’t go home. My—my mama won’t have me back.”
They rarely did. Only if they were stolen from their beds in the middle of the night would they be welcomed back. Once they left home, or more likely, were sold for a few dollars, the door to their childhood was closed forever. “Then there’s only one other place for you.”
Old habit made Jenkins knock on the door to the slave entrance of the big house. Although the plantation house now belonged to Miss Maggie, he never felt right walking up the front steps. The ghost of Massa was still too fresh—in the rooms, on the steps of the plantation house, in the yard by the oak tree. He knew deep down it always would be.
Although the only ropes hanging on the ancient oak now held a handmade wooden seat swing. In the fragmented light of the lantern, he saw the child’s plaything move, swinging back and forth in an aching creak that made his knees like water and his heart flutter like a bird’s. Remember, this is for Mas-Mister Aiken. He turned away.
Rapping his large, age-swollen knuckles on the hard wood made him wince. Winter would be here soon. Quick yet methodic steps sounded inside and a set of smooth-skinned twins appeared at the opening of the door. They glanced at each other and before Jenkins could speak, one of them took the broken girl by the hand and whispered to her. The girl nodded, sagging with relief or exhaustion, Jenkins couldn’t tell which, and the pair padded off silently down a darkened hallway.
The other twin motioned for him to follow and led Jenkins through the recessed servant entrance to the main rooms of the plantation house. Gone were the oil paintings depicting the austere faces of former masters—their disapproving gazes had given Jenkins a reminder of his place each time he had come here for errands when Mister Aiken Senior was a younger man. Instead, colorful fabrics adorned the walls, framed as though they were masterful artworks.
The twin led him to a richly carpeted sitting room where Maggie sat, smoking a long, thin pipe. She was surrounded by headless mannequin bodies, their middles all draped with bright corsets in various states of completion. Her fingers pulled a thick needle through the embroidered fabric, each stitch leaving a worrisome pop in the air as it pierced. He had for a brief moment the need to defer to her, but he quelled it. She was no better than he was despite her money.
“Maggie.” He addressed her by her given name and forced away the tendril of fear that it brought to him.
She didn’t react to the flagrant disrespect, but responded with a formality that made his rudeness as violent as an attack. “Mister Jenkins, what can I do for you?” Her hair was twisted into an elaborate network of braids that she seemed to be duplicating on the scarlet material. He pulled his gaze away. It would not be good if he got himself caught in one of Miss Maggie’s designs. Not good at all.
“Mas—I mean, Mister Aiken wanna throw a party.” His former practiced eloquence was gone, replaced by a Pidgin English that chose only essential words to convey meaning. “He sen’ me ta—”
“Another one? I told him I was not supplying him any longer. He does not know how to take care of things that do not belong to him.”
Jenkins couldn’t have agreed more. No Aiken cared about the property of anyone else, unless it was when they were working on a plan to take it away from the owner. Then once they’d gotten it—the land, the business, the woman—they had to destroy it. He’d seen it happen to slaves and free men alike. “I’m jus’ to make arrangements is all.”
“Here in the dead of night?” Maggie snorted. “But how else would it be done? I know you can’t read—not well, anyway—and even if you could, your master,”—she coughed and spat sputum into a handkerchief—“would never allow any written communication about such a delicate subject. Nothing that could show up somewhere embarrassing.”
Jenkins didn’t reply.
“People say that boy is an idiot, but to me, his doings is sly, too plotted for a fool to carry out. No…he wears the fool’s cap only when it suits.” She took a breath. “No more arrangements. No more parties. No more girls.”
An owl called in the woods outside, its cry shattering the cricket song. Jenkins’ voice was surprisingly gentle as he replied. “You know what he gon’ do to you if you refuse.” Fabric rustled, but the sound echoed from far away. “And what he gon’ do to me for bringin’ the message.”
The tender hum of the night returned slowly, accompanied by the pop and drag of the needle and thread through the fabric. “I know, Thomas. I know.”
He hadn’t heard his given name, the one his mama used to whisper to him as she rocked him in her arms, in too long. Tears pricked at his eyes, but he straightened his back and held on, silent.
A few more stitches and she asked, “How is the girl?”
“Messed up. Inside and out this time.”
The needle sank into the age-softened flesh of her finger and a drop of ruby blood pooled on the skin. She touched it to the fabric and it disappeared into the cloth. Maggie nodded. “How many?”
“’Bout six or seven. He got some really high up men plannin’ on comin’.”
“Seven then. What day?”
“Two weeks from Saturday.”
“Fine.” He looked up and one of the twins had returned to hold the door open for his departure. “This will be the last time, Thomas.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He turned and rushed from the plantation house, fleeing to the harsh, unreliable protection of his master.
Maggie watched as Jenkins, then his shadow, disappeared down the hall. “Get Helen up.” The twin scurried off.
With measured slowness, Maggie crossed the room, her hands caressing each of the dress forms in turn. Each corset handmade for the girl that would wear it. A little something extra stitched into the lining of each creation. Laces and silks and heavy brocaded fabrics, and hours of back breaking work. Aiken’s other sources for girls must have dried up, as he had not come to her in over a year. She picked up one bolt of coutil, tested its strength, then chose another, stronger bolt.
Helen appeared in the doorway, eyes heavy and mouth hanging open. Her thick waistline stretched the seams of the brushed cotton nightdress she wore, making it too short to cover her completely. “Come here, gal, looks like I finally might have a use for you.”
“But I cain’t sew a’tall, Miss Maggie.”
Maggie tore off a length of the tightly woven cloth and wrapped it around the girl, measuring her girth. She nodded then took a piece of coal from the bin next to the fireplace and scraped it against the material, sketching out five long, bent rectangles. Then she gave the impromptu pattern to the slack-jawed girl. “Cut this out for me. See here? Can you do that?”
Helen stared, confused.
“Can you do it?” she repeated. “It’s important that you have your hand in this.”
“Yes’m,” she whispered.
“Good. Sit here now.” Helen sat in a corner of the sitting room, legs splayed, to concentrate on her task. Maggie nudged her legs closed with the tip of her heeled boot. “You don’t open your legs until everything’s just about said and done. Might as well learn that now.”
When Helen finished, she held up five bent rectangle strips of plain cotton material. “Excellent work.” Maggie nodded as her fingers traced over the pattern pieces.
The girl smiled, pleasure making her face more homely than before. Without thinking, she put a hand to her face to press and pick at the inflamed red and white pimples. Miss Maggie’s treatment of wiping her face daily with warm urine had lessened the angry redness, but the swollen pustules returned whenever she stopped the ritual.
“No, none of that now. We don’t have much time and we need you to be perfect.”
“Perfect for what?”
Maggie hummed in answer.
Hours later, Miss Maggie looked up from where she knelt sorting through silks and linens in her sitting room, surrounded by the headless, armless dress forms, and Helen’s heart stuttered. She didn’t know why, but she felt something move, outside her, circling her, sniffing. Miss Maggie pulled out a roll of black satin, slick as spilled ink. The fabric seemed to absorb the light in the room, feeding on it and growing more beautiful.
“This corset will be yours, gal. You will wear it, but we will make it together.”
Helen crawled over and touched the silky blackness where it lay shimmering on the older woman’s lap. “Mine?” Any thought of fear was gone.
“Yes, you’ll be going to a party and you’ll have to dress up. Will you wear it?”
“Like a real lady?” She’d seen Miss Maggie’s girls leave the plantation in carriages, dressed in their finery, and had craved being that beautiful, that wanted… Useful. Helen’s hand traveled to her face again, and this time, Maggie didn’t stop her. “Yes’m—uh—yes, ma’am.”
“Good. Now here, take this.” The needle was brutally sharp and drew blood the instant Helen touched it. “No matter. Just press it on the coutil.” When the girl hesitated, Miss Maggie pushed on. “This will go under the black fabric, no one will see it.”
Helen pressed the blood from her finger to the cloth, leaving tiny red dots. Then she pressed the strip of fabric to her cheek, enjoying the way the texture felt against her skin. It scraped gently, taking away a little of the constant needling itch of her face. The coutil came away with scarlet smears that quickly darkened into rust brown.
“Now we begin,” Maggie said.
For twelve days they worked on the corset after the house had gone to bed. The inner lining of coutil had become stiff and hard with dried blood, but the black satin, now edged with black velvet darker than a crow’s eye covered it perfectly. Helen’s fingers were sore and painful, but she hadn’t stopped the basic backstitch Maggie had shown her that first night. When she washed dishes, each fingertip stung like fire ant bites, but she didn’t care. She was going to be a lady. Ladies wore beautiful things. They were useful.
The next day after dinner, Maggie called her into the sitting room. “Time to try it on, gal.” Helen hesitated in taking off her dress in front of Maggie and the twins, who had spoken little to her since her arrival almost three months before. But now they delicately lifted the heavy basque corset from the dress form and held it for her to step into. Maggie watched, silent.
As the twin girls molded the corset to her body, a weightiness covered her. It was heavy…so heavy, and she could barely keep herself upright. Then the twins laced the velvet-covered cord through the eyelet rings and she almost giggled at the brushing tickle it left on her skin. Then they pulled. Each girl took a cord in both of their small, strong hands and tightened. Helen gasped, and without thinking clasped the edge of the mantelpiece to keep her balance. The steel stays pressed in against her ribcage, their cold metal forming to her body. Her breasts, forced into the basque’s formed cups, felt caged. Inside, she felt hot, burning, her organs crushed into grotesque, unnatural shapes. She moaned, but the sound came out as a breathy gasp, her lungs unable to expand further.
Helen looked around the room trying to verify Maggie’s declaration, but there was no mirror. Finally, in the polished glass of the window, she caught a glimpse of herself. She seemed to float in the corset, black surrounding her in its elegance. Her skin, once fish belly-colored, now glowed with moonlike paleness. In the watery reflection of the darkened window, even her face held smoothness. Was this what it felt like to be beautiful? Was this the power it had?
Then it was whisked away as the twins moved to loosen the stays and remove the garment. Her breath and belly came back with a grunt and she felt back to herself—and strangely bereft of…something.
“A little more work to do, then it will be ready. Go on back to your room now. I’ll bring it to you when I’m done.”
Helen stood there, still in her cotton drawers, flat breasts now lying against her belly. Slowly, she slipped back into her nightdress and padded down the hallway. She passed the rooms of the other girls that would also be going to the party on Saturday night. Their corsets were already completed and draped over a dress form in each of their rooms.
Navy blue hung in Esther’s room, and purple in Deborah’s. Ashley’s red hair likely got her the forest green, but Helen didn’t care for the orange creation—it was too bright and sparkly, more like a circus performer than a lady. White was assigned to the new girl, who hadn’t spoken since she arrived, and violet stood in Camellia’s room.
Camellia had fought not to go to the party. She wanted nothing to do with clothes or dances. Helen couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t want to wear the things Miss Maggie made for the other girls. They got to ride in carriages and sleep late the next day after. Despite Camellia’s scratching and spitting, she was going to the party. Miss Maggie had slapped her while the twins held her arms—they were so strong, stronger than they looked at their tender age of nine—and then leaned down to whisper something in her ear. After that, Camellia had slumped forward, drained of all energy. The corset and its matching organza skirt, in a violet exactly like fresh lavender, now resided in her bedroom. As Helen walked tentatively by, she saw the limp form crumpled on the narrow bed.
“Ain’t you happy to go out?”
“What are you, stupid?” Camellia snapped from under the bedspread. When she saw Helen there, she softened. “Oh. No, I’m not. If I had any other way to live, I would.”
“But you get nice things. Clothes and your hair did.”
“Do you know why?”
Helen shook her head.
“Never mind. You wouldn’t understand anyway.” She shrugged off Helen’s bumbling attempt at a comforting touch. “Just…just be glad you aren’t…” She threw the limp goose feather pillow, flat from sweat and hair preparations, on the floor. “Be glad you don’t have to go. I’d rather die than bear that again. Know what the funny thing is?”
“No.” Fingers to the face. Picking. Camellia turned away.
“The funny thing is I’m too yellow to do it myself. Know what yellow means?”
This she did know. “Means scared.”
“Yeah. Scared. One thing you should never be is scared. Makes you a little dead inside, you know? And dead is something you either want all of or none of. A little bit is no good.”
Helen stood in the hall staring at the door long after Camellia ushered her out with the excuse that she had to get ready for bed. When her feet started to get cold, she shuffled back to her room.
The next evening, Miss Maggie brought the finished corset to Helen’s room. There was no dress form; she walked into the room with her creation draped over her outstretched arms. She placed it on the single bed and closed the door. A long, black silk skirt, reaching to the floor attached to the ornate basque. Helen touched it reverently, unable to believe that it was hers.
Maggie inhaled. “Yes, if you choose to take it on.”
“Put it on?”
“Both, child.” Her voice was weary, but resolute. “If you choose to wear this, and it is your choice—to go to this party—you must know that you will be unlike any other girl there.”
Helen reached for the garment again, but Maggie took her hand. “This is important. Wearing this corset will change you as I’ve added…something old to it.” She felt Maggie’s hand again, the soft, cool fingers sliding around in their thin casings of flesh. Her look seemed desperate, pleading for her agreement. “You need to understand why—”
“Do you want me to wear it?”
Startled by the interruption, she answered honestly. “Yes, I do. You’re a good girl, Helen, I never—”
Helen felt a surge within her. Determination, resolve, it didn’t matter. It made her feel like she knew what to do. How to help. She smiled. “Will it make me useful to you?”
“Very,” Maggie whispered.
“I’ll wear it.”
The needles sank into her breasts and stomach when Maggie pulled the cord tight, piercing and sending their ancient magic deep into her muscles, her bones, changing her. Helen did not scream.
Midnight. The grandfather clock chimed in the front hall of the palatial home on the Battery, Charleston’s elite locale. Facing the water, the house looked out onto Charleston Harbor and all her glory.
The carriage came and went and Helen stepped onto the walkway, up the stairs, and up to the Aiken house. Black satin swept the ground with paintbrush swishes. Sweep, scrape. Sweep, scrape.
Walk in, Miss Maggie had said. Walk in and speak to no one. Look at no one. Keep walking ‘til you can’t walk anymore.
The door opened as she raised her hand. The heavy oak doors swung wide, allowing her to enter. Inside, the party was in full force. Gilded paintings adorned the baroque style architecture, complete with marble columns and large scale ceiling frescoes. Gas lamps lit the interior down the paneled hallways. Laughter and music clashed with the clinking of glasses. The sound flowed around and over her now, not penetrating her cloak of purpose. Heavy, gilt-edged mirrors reflected a face—pale, china white, run through with dark veins like expensive cheese—and a wine stain gaze that left its mark on the flocked walls.
From a side door, a servant appeared. An older Negro man, his features at first looked exasperated, and he marched toward her. As he got closer, his purposeful step faltered.
“I-I-huh…” Words failed him as she drew near, her steps never varying. She watched the servant draw himself back, curling inward like a dying bloom, to hide from this beautiful monstrosity before him. Then he seemed to gather his wits, pull himself up as if to flee.
The word shook him roughly. No movement on her face, save for the veins as they lifted and lowered the pustule-covered skin, but he knew it was she that spoke. From the bottom of the garment, waves of lush fabric rolled to the floor. But as the sea air blew around the grounds and through the open windows of the house, the skirt shifted and billowed, revealing nothing under the bound torso.
“Jesus… at your feet, Jesus.” The rest of the words petered out, nonsensical gibberish, as Jenkins let his bladder and his bowels and his tears go.
The guest in the black corset moved deeper into the house.
Merriment rang in the halls as Aiken’s friends enjoyed their party, weighted with drink and lust. The girls were beautiful, frightened butterflies, pressing themselves against the windows, seeking freedom in vain.
“Green!” Aiken’s voice rang out over the revelers excitement. “Who is the lucky winner? Whose ticket is green?”
“Mine!” Shouts swelled around the reply and shuffling of the guests, all men in formal dress, began.
Impatient, the host asked again, “Who is it?”
A portly man maneuvered his way through the throng of guests in the ballroom, waving the winning ticket. His suit was impeccably tailored, but it did little to conceal the ropes of sweat ringing the armpits and crotch. “She’s mine,” he announced, reaching for the girl dressed in forest green silk.
“The young lady is mine for the evening, in fact.” Another green card popped up above the crowd, much to the awe of the guests. Whispers started, rumors grew. Was this on purpose or an accident? It had never happened before.
Aiken bit back his ire. Jenkins would get his for this mistake. Two of the same colored cards in round one? The night had just begun. He would have to address it, make it look intentional. Make it his triumph. “Fellows, I see my little twist has come to light early.”
Murmurs swelled first, then receded, mirroring the tide outside the doors. “Tonight, you are partners. Enjoy her together or in relay as you will.” Aiken smiled what he hoped what a reassuring smile. “Off to the green room with you. Orange! Who is holding the ticket orange? Step up and take your girl.”
One lay claim to the girl in orange and, as Aiken circled her waist with his hands to lift her away from the platform and into the winner’s waiting grasp, a movement caught his eye from the long aisle running along the length of the top floor. Was it Jenkins? The old fool had not been up to check with him in far too long. But then he heard the swish of skirt, cloth dragged against the ground. Another girl? Possibly. He hadn’t planned for that, but there were plenty of men that would enjoy a new…face.
He pushed the one in the orange corset, rough with embedded jewels, to its new owner and stepped away from his party. Forgetting to make his polite excuses, he heard the rumbling of his guests but ignored them. How dare anyone thwart him in his own house? A woman to boot, dressed in black like a new widow. He wanted color, liveliness, bright girlish blushes. He pushed past those milling about in the grand ballroom, examining his selections for the evening, pinching a bit décolleté here and squeezing a bit of bottom there.
He rounded the open double doors and turned in the direction the girl had gone. Was she so stupid that she couldn’t find the party? Worse, had that woman given him a deaf girl? He wouldn’t pay for a broken one. He refused to play with broken toys. There she was passing the second archway down the hall. He hadn’t seen this one before. She seemed to glide along, head erect, not looking at all of the glorious things around her.
“Stop her!” Where was Jenkins?
Her pace didn’t alter as she continued through the third archway. Graceful, elegant. He found himself wanting to know, wanting to see her face. Don’t run. Not in your own house. Even so, he quickened his pace to catch up with her. Later, he might show her what it meant to be a girl purchased for the night, but first his curiosity must be satisfied, then his loins. He’d have her, show her that she was playing a role—that of a beautiful ornament crafted for amusement and nothing more. A role she could be stripped of as easily as he could rip her clothing.
His heart beat faster, anger firing in his chest, and he pursued the woman—he thought it must be a woman now; no young girl would have that much poise, that much insolence—through his home. Through the floor-to-ceiling windows, he caught reflected glimpses of her, a white arm, inky hair, then it was gone before his eyes could fully conceive of her.
He ran, against his earlier judgment, but even with his quickened pace, he could barely keep her in sight. Five, six arches, curving around the side of the house, passing several rooms of either side. He’d have her soon. His cock leapt at the thought. One more arch and she’d reach the end of the hall, where heavy wooden doors closed off the final room. There he’d corner her.
The guest in black glided through the door at the end of the hall, not disturbing it from its hinges. Inside, the room itself was cast in dark shadows from the moonlight washing in through the drawn curtains. With her touch, candles flared to life, bringing into view quilted red velvet furniture, weighty and ornate, and a grandfather clock.
Helen sat on a red chaise longue and waited for him to join her. Her mind was clear, no thoughts. Not of the party, not of the corset’s crushing tightness. Of what he would do to her, she had no cares. She lay on the chaise, moonlight reverently falling on the black basque where it hugged her now shrunken waist.
When he reached the room and wrenched the massive door open, he was panting. Aiken’s breath came hard, wheezing through his lungs, as his narrow silhouette entered the doorway.
“You dirty muck wench,” he huffed, gulping in lungfuls of stale air. “How did you even get in here? I had to—no matter.” Breath returning, he grinned and entered the room, closing the door behind him. “You’re here now. Can’t wait to teach you some manners.”
He inched closer to her and Helen could smell him, smell his hatred and disease. As the shifting light from the moon danced with the candles, she could see it. There. Flowing through him, imbedded below the flesh, in the muscle, into the bone. But he was right, it didn’t matter.
“But I have my priorities,” Aiken continued, loosening the waist of his trousers. “Must fill up that little notch of yours first.”
He stepped forward, eager for a taste of new flesh. Helen turned her face away, but he grasped it in one hand as he fished under the voluminous skirts with the other. The corset shuddered, squeezed, finally revealing to the sputtering candlelight the mottled splotches of blood decorating the fabric. The grisly pattern shone through the layers of satin, of velvet.
His grin of victory froze as he turned her to face him, the fine webbing of veins crossing her skin pulsing with another, deadlier disease. His hand under the skirt fished of its own accord, seeking even in the midst of what his eyes told him wasn’t—couldn’t be possible. Aiken’s feeble mind couldn’t process, couldn’t understand… nothing. There was nothing. Where her puss should have been, that soft, warm cavern, was emptiness.
A whimper escaped him as his cock deflated, shrinking back, hiding in a futile attempt to escape. The veins rose from Helen’s face, reached out to him, searching for the best place to enter. They writhed in glee at the many, many possible orifices, and finally, chose them all.
Helen didn’t know, but it began to consume him from the inside. He made no sound—couldn’t, as the veins had worked their way into his mouth first—but Helen could see the pain. She observed it from a mental distance, recording his agony, memorizing his gurgling fear.
Moments later, he fell to the floor, desiccated, a husk of dusty skin.
The clock struck midnight and what was once Helen looked up, stood, and stepped over her host’s carcass. Somewhere inside, she hoped the girls in their beautifully colored corsets would survive her—those that wanted to, of course—but her own lacings tightened again, sucking, squeezing out every desire except the need to return to the party.
I hope you enjoyed this story. Now, for our interview.
We’re talking with Eden Royce, the author of today’s story. Thanks so much for chatting with us, Eden.
TONIA: Can you tell us a little bit about what prompted the idea for “The Basque of the Red Death”?
EDEN: I was invited to submit to an anthology. This was out of the blue. I was out at a writers group meeting in Charlotte that’s held at this wonderful little French bakery called Amelie’s. And I’m sitting there with probably, my pastry and cup of green tea, and I was invited to submit a story to an anthology about corsets. And I looked at the person that invited me, this was John Hartness, who is now with Falstaff Publishing. At the time, the book was, I believe, supposed to come out with Dark Oak Media. And I think I blinked at him twice and said, “Corsets?” This is an entire anthology about corsets and you want me to write a story. And he said, “Yeah”, you know. And he told me the story about how he’d come up with the idea, and I think it may have involved several other people that were not at the table and possibly some alcohol. So I said, “Um, right. Um, okay. I’ll do my best to come up with something”. And I said, “You know I typically write dark fiction, right?” And he said, “Oh, yeah, I figured you would come up with something great”. And I said, “About corsets and dark fiction”. Yeah, all right. And it was, um, I want to say three months that I had to put it together and come up with an idea. And, of course, I ended up finishing my story and sending it in on the very last day possible.
TONIA: Well, we’ve all been writers.
EDEN: …writer sometimes. And because I thought about it, I think to a certain extent, I just… I didn’t connect corsetry and dark fiction/horror initially. And I ended up finishing the story, I want to say New Year’s Eve and that was the very last day that you could send the story. And I was in the UK by the time that deadline rolled around, so I had a little bit of extra time. So, by the time it was midnight for me, it wasn’t quite midnight on the East Coast. So, I used that extra five hours that I had to my advantage, and sent it in at the very last minute. And they liked it, thankfully. I think the inspiration was I’m going to look up corsetry and how corsets are made, and hope and pray that I get some sort of inspiration from the process. Because I think that the process of certain things like that, like corsets that are a very, um… old-fashioned, old world garment can also be inspiring of how was this thing put together? Is it steel, is it whalebone? Is it whatever the heck? And, um, one of my other inspirations is Poe. And I’ve always loved reading his work. So, one of the things that sort of occurred to me was the story “The Masque of the Red Death”.
EDEN: And basque in corsetry, just in wordplay.
EDEN: So, I just jokingly said, “Well, you know, you might end up with a story called ‘Basque of the Red Death’”. And he said, “Yeah, I kind of dig that”.
TONIA: Yeah. I mean, it’s an amazing title.
EDEN: I actually had the title before I had the idea for the story. And it just sort of went from there. I re-read “Masque of the Red Death” and took some of the imagery, and a lot of the imagery is color imagery in that story, and put it into “Basque of the Red Death” because it really fit with, um… the color and the increasing fear and trepidation and darkness that that story brings.
TONIA: Right. So, tell us a little bit about your journey as a writer.
EDEN: Uh, it has definitely been a journey, I can say that. Um, I wrote from a pretty young age. When I was maybe five or six, there was some sort of contest in the local paper, and I wrote a story in a sort of completing the story that they had begun. It was one of the ones, one of the stories that won. And I think my mother might still have the clip from the newspaper about it. But once I went to school, and started learning more about what writing was “supposed” to be, I became less confident in my ability to write. And it wasn’t until I started working full time… I came home from work one day, it had been a horrible day, it had been an awful commute, worst day ever, and I got home and I sat at my computer and I wrote a story, and it was incredibly cathartic. And that was sort of how I just got re-energized about writing and telling my story, and about putting those experiences and those emotions on the page. And not long after that, I think it may have been 2008 or so, I published my first story. And I have been publishing short stories ever since then in various publications online, some in print, thankfully.
TONIA: Do you have any plans to publish any longer works, like a novel or novella?
EDEN: I do. I have some news that I can’t share quite yet, but I do have those plans coming up very soon. So hopefully I will have some news about some longer work from me coming out shortly before I absolutely burst with, you know, not being able to tell anyone. But fingers crossed, hopefully I’ll be able to have some news to share very soon.
TONIA: Awesome, and we’ll share that on the Nightlight Twitter account as soon as we hear about it, so you guys can hear about it too. What is your favorite Poe story?
EDEN: Ooh. Um… I think my favorite Poe story has probably got to be… I do love the poem “The Raven”.
EDEN: Because I think that really sort of sums up a lot of fear and terror that a person being alone can really sort of heap upon themselves.
EDEN: In an isolated setting. But I have to admit that I do like “The Pit and the Pendulum”.
TONIA: That one’s my favorite too.
EDEN: I do have an affinity for that story. And it’s dark, but it’s also a bit… You have to have a certain sort of mind to think up a story like that, and I just… it’s just impressive.
TONIA: Yeah. Yeah. It was one of the first ones that I read from Poe. I grew up in a really conservative place. The fact that they let us read Poe at all was huge, and then like, I discovered this whole world and started reading and stuff, and was like, “Oh my goodness! I can write this kind of stuff”. Would you say that reading Poe influenced your work at all, or was it just kind of…? You grew up with it, then walked away from writing for a while, and came back to it with your own sort of expectations for yourself?
EDEN: I would say that pretty much anything that you read that you enjoy can have an impact on you, and have an impact on how you see writing and how you see the story form.
EDEN: I grew up in South Carolina, so one of the things people may or may not know about Poe is that he spent a certain amount of time in South Carolina, I believe when he was in the military. And he wrote “The Gold-Bug” while he was in South Carolina. So, if you’re from South Carolina, a lot of times if you’re literary minded, that’s one of the things you may stumble across is, oh, Poe was here in this particular part of the world when he wrote one of his most famous stories.
EDEN: I think with inspiring my current work, it’s more inspired by how I grew up because I always loved dark fiction and I always loved scary stories, scary movies, from a very young age. My mother and grandmother always watched those Saturday and Sunday afternoon black and white horror movies, a lot of them were Hammer horror movies.
EDEN: And we would just sit there and watch these films, which you wouldn’t think that you would sit there and watch with your mother and grandmother. But we all absolutely loved them. And I asked my grandmother once, “Aren’t you… Don’t these stories make you scared? Don’t these movies scare you”? And she looked at me and she said, “These movies don’t scare me because they’re not real. Other people are the ones that are scary”.
EDEN: And that’s always sort of stuck with me. And on top of that, one of the things I find very inspirational is seeing and reading horror and dark fiction that has people of color as characters, and I didn’t get a lot of that when I was growing up. I felt almost compelled to write it, and put us in stories where we maybe survive. Maybe where we’re the final girl, if you want to use that term. Or at least approach the story and approach the situation in a way that seems to make sense for our character and our history and how we see the world.
TONIA: What was one of your favorite movies that you saw growing up? Or one that really stuck with you, even if it wasn’t necessarily your favorite?
EDEN: I will say that one of my favorite horror movies currently to this day is John Carpenter’s “The Thing”. I absolutely adore that movie. It’s one that I saw at a fairly young age, but even when I come back to it now it still appeals and it still has, it still holds up really, really well. I’ve never seen the film that it was, that inspired it, “The Thing From Outer Space”, that I haven’t seen. If I ever have a Mystery Science Theater night at my house, I might get that and some other sort of campy sci-fi movie to watch. But I love John Carpenter’s version of this because I love movies that isolate characters, whether it’s we’re trapped in a haunted house, or we’re trapped in a space station, or we’re trapped in this blizzard ridden outpost or whatever the case may be. And you know that help isn’t coming.
TONIA: Right. I think that makes the horror more real.
EDEN: It does.
TONIA: Because you can always just run away from something. It’s like, well, why didn’t you just, you know, go to your friend’s house, or why didn’t you call your friend. You don’t… you can’t ask those questions when a character is isolated in that way.
EDEN: And that has completely taken that off the table early.
EDEN: And it really just sort of shows the core of humanity. And most movies that have that sort of situation, they do a good job of getting a cross-section of personalities and seeing how different people handle the stress.
EDEN: And not just the horror that’s an outside entity coming in, but with how you deal with that stress and the desolation that inevitably comes from the breakdown that you go through in trying to fight this thing.
TONIA: Right. That kind of goes back to what your grandmother said, being afraid of other people.
EDEN: Oh, absolutely.
TONIA: The choices characters make in horror are every bit as horrifying as the monster. So, let’s talk a little bit about black horror, specifically. What was the first piece of black horror you ever read?
EDEN: Ooh. I would probably say I didn’t come across a lot of black horror growing up, at least not in the written format. I grew up with seeing black horror on the screen, because I still have a love of blaxploitation horror. And I know some people have a complicated relationship with blaxploitation horror. I absolutely love it because I can understand it for what it is. It is, for me, an attempt for us to be present in a genre that typically excluded us up to that point.
EDEN: We were throw away characters in a lot of horror films. I mean, we all know that it’s the big trope of the black person dies first, or what person would even let themselves get into that situation in the first place.
EDEN: But I think blaxploitation horror was really an attempt to take a genre that we love to experience from the outside in watching, but actually put ourselves in the action. And no one else had really made an attempt to do that. At least not showing us as heroes or champions, or even someone that was willing to… One of my other movies that I enjoy, I wrote an article about it for “Graveyard Shift Sisters”, is “The House on Skull Mountain”, which everything else I saw about that film when I researched it, disparaged it completely. “It’s horrible, it’s terrible”. And it isn’t. What it is, I think, is a combination of two of my favorite genres, which is blaxploitation horror and gothic horror. And having a black female lead who’s just a traditional gothic heroine was so refreshing to see because a lot of times we aren’t shown as damsels in distress. We’re angry black women, or we’re strong black women that don’t need help from anybody. And this film doesn’t do that. It ignores a lot of tropes. Yes, it does have its problems, and one of the problems is probably, um… just the inexperience of some of the people possibly behind the camera, the inexperience of some of the actors, some of the sound quality. But at its core, the movie the way it was written was, I think, a really well-done portrayal of black femininity and black womanhood and strength, but from a gothic perspective. And I absolutely adore that. But black horror as far as written, I didn’t get a lot of that. There might be small twinges of it in things I’ve read over the years… one person because there are certainly horrific elements in certain books. There are horrific elements in “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry”.
EDEN: There were small moments of horror and terror in lots of young people’s books. You go back and read, you know, Beatrix Potter. And it’s technically horror where Peter’s tail gets ripped off, or whatever the case may be. Those are horrific elements, but as far as reading something by a person of color that was unabashedly described as horror, I didn’t have that growing up. It took a very long time for me to actually find and sit down to read a book like that.
TONIA: So, what was the first book that you read that was like that?
EDEN: I think that was probably Tananarive Due’s “My Soul ToKeep”.
EDEN: From her African Immortals series.
TONIA: Right. It’s a really good book. I’ll put a link in the show notes to it, so folks can buy that. Would you say that’s one of your favorite books, or…? Since then, have you read something that really you would recommend that everyone who is a fan of black horror read?
EDEN: Oh, gosh, I probably have a list of those that I could… that I could send to you. And I’m finding that there are black people that are writing horror that have characters of color, there are black people that are writing horror that have gone away from using characters of color, which in a way I also appreciate that because we don’t always necessarily have to write from our own experience if we don’t want to.
EDEN: We can write a myriad of situations, a myriad of characters. Tade Thompson’s “The Murders of Molly Southbourne” is an amazing, amazing book. I believe length-wise it’s technically a novella. I don’t believe it’s a full-length novel, but it is a phenomenal book and I think I saw on Twitter recently that there is a follow-up to the book coming out as well.
EDEN: I don’t know when exactly that will be, but I did see a Tweet about that, so just sort of registered that in the back of my mind. Helen Oyeyemi’s “White Is For Witching”.
TONIA: Oh, yes, that’s a lovely, lovely book.
EDEN: It is absolutely excellent and it’s absolutely beautiful and it’s set here, not far from where I live now. It’s set in Dover, in the UK.
EDEN: So, when she describes these houses and these homes and the structure of them, I really resonated with those descriptions and the personalities of the characters. It was just really beautifully done. Not everyone will resonate with that book because of the POV changes that the book has.
EDEN: But I thought it was absolutely phenomenal.
TONIA: Right. It did take me a couple of tries to get into it. Like, I had to be in the right frame of mind.
EDEN: Mindset. Mm-hm.
TONIA: To get into it. It took me a couple of tries, but then when I did finally sit down, I was like, “Okay, I’m ready to read this”, it was phenomenal. I’m gonna read it again.
EDEN: Definitely worth reading again. I have several that I’m in the process of reading now or have just finished. RasheedanPrioleau’s “American Spectre”.
TONIA: I haven’t heard of that one.
EDEN: That’s actually probably more of a thriller than horror, I would think, technically. But a lot of people are different with what they consider to be horror.
EDEN: There’s a lady that I know, she doesn’t watch a lot of films. She’s a bit, I think, hesitant to watch anything too upsetting. But she did mention to me, she said, “Oh, I watched this, oh, my God, this horror movie this weekend, and I just, I don’t know if I’m going to recover from it”. And I said, “Well, what was it”? And she said it was “Taken” with Liam Neeson. I guess it’s just about your perspective as to what terrifies you and scares you.
EDEN: But apparently, that was what did it for her. And she said, “Oh, you know, I just had to watch cartoons the rest of the weekend”.
TONIA: Horror is a very personal thing.
EDEN: Very personal.
TONIA: The movie “Snakes On A Plane” would be horror to me because I’m terrified of snakes, so… you know. I don’t know if it would be horror to anybody else, but… But yeah, I definitely think that horror is very personal.
EDEN: Exactly. But I think that’s where a lot of, at least POC horror, comes from a different perspective as to what’s terrifying and what’s scary, and to how we might respond to those individual situations.
TONIA: So, you mentioned that you live in the UK or live there now.
EDEN: I live there now.
TONIA: What would you say the black experience is like for you there, and you know, also kind of what is the experience with black horror because, you know, you like to write about gothic horror. It seems like a very southern American thing, and you seem kind of removed from that now. Is that the case, or have you just kind of brought it with you?
EDEN: Well, the gothic really started in Europe and the UK. A lot of that…
EDEN: …was castles on hills and moors, and that sort of… haunted hallways and secret rooms. And when it moved to the American South, it became abandoned plantations. And still keeping the secret rooms, still keeping the family secrets, which is a very big Southern Gothic tenet.
EDEN: But I think there are, there are such similarities because the Southern Gothic also has with it a lot of deterioration, and crumbling buildings, and poverty, and people that just lead lives of pain, which is really one of the only things that I think changes it so significantly to make it Southern from its parentage of the traditional gothic. Where you might have a crumbling castle, there’s still a majesty toward it, there’s still a mystique that it has. And people still whisper secrets about it, what’s up there in that castle and who’s up there. But Southern Gothic really does sort of embrace deterioration and poverty and desolation as part of the landscape. And as far as moving to the UK with the black experience, I found that there is this unusual similarity that I did not expect when I moved here because I’m from… I’m from Charleston, South Carolina, as I probably have already mentioned. So I’m a Gullah Geechee, which means I’m descended from the first Africans brought to the American South in chattel slavery. And we have kept a lot of our traditions, we’ve kept a lot of our food, we’ve kept a lot of our ways of life. And I grew up with basket making, fishing and shrimping, and certain things that are done the same way they were done three hundred years ago, four hundred years ago. And when I moved here to the UK, the UK has a very large population of people of African descent. A lot of people from Western Africa live in the UK, so I thought when I move here what am I going to do as far as feeling the culture and feeling connected to blackness.
EDEN: And all I had to do was, honestly, find a hair salon. I went and got my hair done, and these ladies were… I mean, it was like being back in Charleston at a salon. They are talking to you, offering you some of the cake they made last night. You know, “Oh, no! I brought in some of this. Here, have some”. And the rustle of foil-wrapped cakes, and being offered slightly too-sweet coffee. I mean, it was just… The only real difference was sort of the cadence of the women talking as they sort of went through doing my hair.
EDEN: And the lack of complaint. I usually get a lot of complaints when it’s… “Ugh! I don’t really want to do all this hair”. But it was just such a familiarity. Obviously, there are differences.
EDEN: With coming from the Gullah Geechee background that I did, it really felt like coming to this part of the world wasn’t the huge transition that I expected it to be.
EDEN: So, I still feel very connected. Obviously, I don’t hear a lot of American accents right now, so talking with you is just a treat to hear an American accent. But it wasn’t the… It wasn’t as far removed as I expected it to be. And Tade Thompson and Helen Oyeyemi that I mentioned a moment ago, they’re both UK writers, black UK writers of horror. And those voices are still here.
EDEN: And they’re still producing work, and they’re still producing astounding work.
TONIA: Tell us, where can we find you online, where can we learn more about your work, do you have anything upcoming that you want us to know about?
EDEN: My website is www.edenroyce.com. So, you can find out what I’ve written up to this point, where to find it online, whether it’s a podcast or magazine. You can also find some of my book reviews and film reviews on Graveyard Shift Sisters, which is a site dedicated to purging the black female horror fan from the margins.
TONIA: An excellent site, by the way.
EDEN: It is an excellent site, so if you’re looking for a new read, or you want to know about, say, a blaxploitation film… I think I’ve mentioned a few, “House on Skull Mountain” and “Eve’s Bayou” are the big ones that I’ve reviewed on that website.
TONIA: Everybody has to watch “Eve’s Bayou”, by the way. That’s your homework.
EDEN: Oh, my gosh. It’s… Watching that movie, which I know we didn’t really chat about, but I felt like this is the portrayal of the South that we want to see.
EDEN: This is it. So, if you want a sense of… If I had to pick a movie that was… I don’t necessarily consider it horror, it’s more of a terror movie. “Eve’s Bayou” is that. It’s definitely that sort of Southern mystique that I would recommend to anyone that’s interested in Southern Gothic, Southern work, horror featuring people of color, to watch “Eve’s Bayou”.
TONIA: Is there anything else we should know about you?
EDEN: As I mentioned earlier in the show, I hope to have some news coming out soon about some other work. I have had a few short stories accepted in a few magazines that I should be able to make an announcement on very shortly, within the next few days or so. And hopefully, something longer before the summer’s out.
TONIA: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for your time, Eden.
EDEN: My pleasure.
TONIA: Really appreciate you telling us all about all of these wonderful stories, and now my evening is already booked with things to read and things to watch.
EDEN: Fantastic. My work here is done.
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