It’s a strange fact about the modern age, that in order for a thing’s existence to be confirmed, you cannot trust to your own five senses anymore. In order for reality to be ‘real’, it must be confirmed so by the greater populace. Television, and the internet, have changed our way of life whether for good or ill. Events in my life over the past few weeks seem…so odd, even now, that the act of writing them down and… ’publish’ it online may be the only way for it all too feel like more than a slide into delirium.
In my living room, near the door that leads to my bedroom, there once hung a 3 1/2’ by 5’ oil painting. The artist was one William Cartwright, an obscure Wolverhampton native who, the owner told me, had died mysteriously in the early 1950’s. I made the purchase at a garage sale for a princely sum of £10 – the owner, a middle-aged man called Charles Franklin, must have been desperate to sell, considering the dilapidation of both his house and himself. The picture itself is a bucolic scene, as wholesome as a Rockwell, and as verdant as a Matisse. It depicts a family picnic within a lush meadow, buttercups blooming around the gathering, a small copse of trees to the left, and rolling hills in the background. The weather is fair, and the subjects – mother, father, three rosy-cheeked children – are accounted in post-war attire. On careful inspection, however, one can see a rather less cheerful detail. Partially hidden behind the foremost tree is another person, a drably clothed young man with a sour expression on his face. I only really saw it after I’d made the purchase, and it rather ruined the painting’s main mood for me… though not enough that I didn’t end up hanging it anyway.
I bought it six weeks ago, and it was one week after that all this started. It was 6:30 in the evening, and I was returning to the living room from the bathroom when I noticed that the painting had been altered. Maybe it was set at a wrong angle? I inspected it, and found it was hung perfectly straight. Nothing had changed within the frame, either… the picnic still progressed merrily, and the dour youth still looked on with his back to the trees. I turned away, prepared and ate dinner, watched some fitfully funny sitcoms and went to bed.
I awoke in horror at 3:30 am that morning, shivering and soaked with sweat, the riddle of the painting answered. I knew what had changed… the stranger, once partially obscured only a few hours before, was completely visible. The still life had moved.
Over the next week, I kept a wary eye on the painting whenever I passed it. Sure enough, with each passing day the dark figure grew ever so slightly larger in comparison to the foregrounded figures. And, as his features became clearer, I saw that his face wasn’t so youthful, or so angry either… maybe it was a trick of the light, but sometimes his expression was more akin to a smile, albeit a sinister one. It wasn’t just the painting, either. Any horror movie I watched, whenever the monster leaped at the screen, it seemed more vivid and threatening than before. Maybe it was my eyes unfocusing, but it seemed to me that the edges of the screen warped outward each time it happened. Every time I listened to music, I heard occasional murmuring, like somebody… or something… whispering the apocrypha of the damned. The backyard of my house always played host to small animals and birds, most of them visibly sickening. And as for the dreams… the less said the better.
Two weeks ago, a loud thump on the back door woke me up in the early morning. Eyes barely open, I staggered out to the living room to investigate the noise. The noise had been made by a crow dashing itself against the door, and it’s crumpled form lay quite dead in the wan dawn light. With the aid of a plastic bag, and considerable reluctance, I brought the corpse inside, went out to the street and gave it a cursory burial in the nearest bin. I then changed and walked out to get that day’s newspaper and a coffee from the corner store.
Ensconced once more in my home, I received a mild shock several pages into my reading. An article, brief and embellished only with a grainy photograph, detailed the investigation of a suicide in the local area of one Charles Franklin. The picture was of a sunken eyed, somewhat unkempt man fast approaching sixty. The picture also matched the features of the previous owner of the Cartwright painting. An involuntary shiver spasmed between my shoulders, and I became ever more aware of the painting behind me. I had not inspected the progress of the dark figure yet, and so paced towards it, brackish dread filling my stomach with each step. I was right to dread… if anything, I wasn't scared enough.
Nothing I’ve drunk since then can erase the image of that tranquil abomination contained within the frames. As usual, the menacing figure on the left had inched further, further into the foreground than the background now. And, as before, the family enjoyed a frozen repast in the heat-less sunlight. The familiarity, even that of the unfamiliar, had been intruded on twice, though. A bird hovered above the meadow, a bird with the dusky feathers of a crow. And in the mother’s hands a baby, dark eyed and sombre, was cradled. Even with the weight of years and worry lifted, I knew I saw none other than the face of Charles Franklin.
I’ve since covered the painting and sealed it in a cupboard in the spare room – yet still I can sense it no matter where I am. It exudes a suffocating aura, instilling me with a leaden torpor no amount of caffeine can shake off. Many times I’ve thought of destroying the damn thing, yet whenever I endeavor to do so fatigue overwhelms me, and I am left unable to rise from the floor. I’ve advertised it for sale, but so far there hasn’t been so much as a single phone call. I can’t listen to music anymore… it’s drowned out by horrendous babbling, a cacophony of obscenities and hatred.
I don’t watch movies either… or indeed, anything. I looked into my bathroom mirror for the last time five days ago, and what stared back at me was the dark man’s murderous leer. It took more courage than I care to admit just to switch this computer on. I do not know the nature of William Cartwright, or the nature of his painting, or the nature of the specter that haunts me. What kind of man was Cartwright? What kind of monster? How many paintings did he create before consigning his flesh to rot? Did his soul follow? It doesn't matter. Nothing matters now. All I know is that it has consumed me completely, like it consumed Charles and his family.
The sounds of faint hammering drift from the spare room. May the padlock hold out, at least until the pills have rendered me oblivious.
Farewell, dear reader.