Principia Anthropologia
by Jens Rushing
forum: Principia Anthropologia
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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Principia Anthropologia


        Coffee flew and Melissa Speedwell shrieked as the radio blared to life behind her. Trembling with surprise, she slapped the power button; the radio did not turn off. Rather than music, static filled the room, making Melissa's teeth ache. Then her blood ran cold as she identified the distorted clamor: tormented screams.

        "What's wrong with this thing?" she cried. Her hair was a mess, and the coffee stained her Ralph Lauren slacks. "Oh…" she said, rubbing it with her fingertips, and of course only making it worse.

        "Oh, honey, I'm afraid I forgot to tell you." Adrienne Vaughan produced a tiny crucifix from her pocket and pressed it to the radio. "Exeunt omnes! Deus vult!" she whispered, and the radio blinked off. "I got so caught up in talking about cotillion that it completely slipped my mind." Adrienne, that consummate domestic, already had a bottle of Shout in hand. She sprayed a little on Melissa's slacks. "Now you let that sit."

        "What was that?" Melissa was still shrieking. Adrienne's evident calm began to soothe her. They had been Pi Phi together at SMU; Melissa admitted to knowing no one quite so cool and collected as Adrienne. Or anyone quite so tasteful, or decorous. Adrienne did everything with perfect taste, which filled Melissa with equal parts admiration and burning envy. So when the kitchen radio suddenly burst forth with the wailing of the damned, she trusted to Adrienne's evident mastery of the situation.

        Adrienne poured her another cup of coffee and Melissa sipped. It was good, and she knew for a fact that it cost seventy dollars a pound. Adrienne settled in her chair, brushed one stray lock exactly back into place, and said, "I meant to tell you—you can rub that now—but it's just our poltergeist, our noisy little ghost." A tiny frown creased her porcelain face. "Don't you have one?"


        "They're all the rage in LA this fall. Gustav told me they were the coming thing, and I just had to have one." Behind her, a wine glass wobbled on a shelf.

        "Uh. Huh." Melissa warmed up. She cleared her throat and crossed her legs confidently. "Well, no, I'm afraid we don't have one—yet. I must speak to Don. Uh, coincidentally, where did you get one?"

        "I don't know exactly. Scott took care of it. You won't find them at Neiman Marcus, though." Adrienne winked conspiratorially. "Now don't let the cat out of the bag. We were thinking we might have a party, nothing too big, just a little dinner party to show it off. Gustav told me he'd be sure to put it in his column."

        Melissa frowned. Why hadn't Gustav told her about this new trend? She was just as good a friend of his as Adrienne. But Adrienne always got there first; when Audis superceded Mercedes, Adrienne had the first Q7 in Highland Park. When Hockaday Girls' School had gained supremacy over St. Sebastian's, Adrienne's children were already enrolled. How did she do it? Just once Melissa wanted to be there first. Don had just as much money as Scott, if not more. They just weren't in the loop. They weren't—dare she think it? They weren't as fashionable as Adrienne. The Vaughans changed social laws at whim, and the Speedwells fell into place. Melissa would have found the situation intolerable if Adrienne weren't her best friend.

        The wine glass rocketed from the shelf and shattered on the opposite wall. "I tell you, Melissa, there hasn't been a dull moment since we got it!" Adrienne said brightly.

        "Does—does it have a name?"

        "Lost to the saaands of tiiime, I'm sure." Adrienne gestured dramatically. She giggled. "I call it 'Chester'." Another wine glass, and another, a whole salvo of wine glasses, smashed against the wall. Melissa shielded her eyes against the rain of shards.

        "It's not dangerous, is it?"

        "I shouldn't think so." Adrienne sipped her coffee. "Your coffee's getting cold, honey."

* * *

        "Don!" Melissa cried. Annoyed, he tore his attention from his laptop.

        "Yes, my sweet?"

        "Don! They've done it again!" She pursed her lips in a frenzy of emotion; she almost wrung her hands.

        "I don't have the least idea what you're talking about, babe."

        "Adrienne! Remember when she wore white to the Columbus Day pageant and I said it was the most ghastly thing and then next year everyone wore white? After Labor Day?"

        "… no," he said. He was thinking of certain passages from Age of Innocence.

        "Well, she did, and now she's done it again!" Melissa stamped her little foot, but not too hard, hardwood floors being expensive. She threw herself into a chair.

        "Hmm," Don said. "What is it this time?" He wondered if they would have to buy a new car.

        "You won't believe this," Melissa said in a tone which told him that he had better believe it. "She's gone and bought a poltergeist."

        "A poltergeist?"

        "A poltergeist."

        "A damned soul? Why? No—how?"

        "I don't know." Melissa shrugged. "She's sure it's the coming thing, though."

        "How's she know?"

        "Gustav told her."

        "Gustav." He spat the name, showing just what he thought of Gustav.

        "Say what you will, dear, he's usually right about these things."

        Don leaned back in his chair and chewed his lip pensively. Always one thing or another, he thought. "So how do we get one?" Melissa shrugged again. "Should I slay one of my mistresses and brick her corpse up in the walls?" This idea came to him directly from Johnny Quest, and he smiled with fond remembrance.

        "Call your assistant. That's what he's for."

        "I don't think this quite falls within Jeff's job description."

        "Then fire him and get another assistant!" She ignored his eye-rolling. "Everyone will want one of these things soon. I want to be the first. The second. I'm sure Jeff can do the job. We can't be left out in the cold again."

        "I'm calling, I'm calling."

* * *

        Within a month, almost all the quality families of Highland Park had some kind of specter. At the Griffin house, an ethereal weeping widow rocked in a chair from eleven o'clock to midnight every night, waiting for her husband, killed at Gettysburg, to return; the Jaspers had an honest-to-goodness oni drifting, bodiless, through their halls; even the Landaus had a tiny homunculus preparing potion after vile potion that they poured down the drain, vaguely hoping no harm would come of it.

        But not the Speedwells. Whether through Jeff's mismanagement of the task, or sheer bad luck, they were unable to acquire a suitable revenant. The few they did consider all proved impractical or disagreeable for one reason or another: too noisy, too ethereal, too damned. Melissa grumbled in frustration, and Don grumbled in annoyance, but no ghosts were forthcoming. Until:

        One Saturday night in August, warm and humid, without a breath of breeze. Don was on the phone, haranguing Jeff (who had promised "something big" soon) for his failure, and Melissa was curled up with The Da Vinci Code on the couch. Mason and Sawyer slept snugly in their race car-shaped beds upstairs. A knock on the door.

        Startled, Melissa peeped, as one does, through the peephole—no one. She cracked the door open. "Hello?"

        "Hello, miss, name's Julius, and I understand you got a problem." She gasped at the character in the doorway. He was short, with flashing eyes and permanent stubble, a bulbous nose reddened with burst capillaries; he was a sprite, a carnival runaway in all but his clothes. Rather than the tattered clown suit or hobo outfit that one may reasonably expect, he wore sensible tweed and polished Rockports. "Julius Ginch, and I am here to solve your problem."

        Melissa, being a Texas woman, was not exactly timid, nor entirely rational. This strange figure intrigued her and inflamed her curiosity. "And what problem do you mean?"

        "Madam," he said, leaning forward and shielding his words with a gloved hand, "I speak of your ghost problem. Namely, how you don't have any."

        Melissa was skeptical. "How do you know about that?"

        Here the little man extended his palm to the heavens and rocked back on his heels. "Madam, whenever words are whispered on the wind, I know. Whenever a desire goes unfulfilled, I can do naught but attend." He waved his hand, and a rose appeared in his fingers. She didn't see where it came from; he must have drawn it from his sleeve without her notice. She giggled in spite of herself and took the proffered bloom. "Also, Jeff called me. Your husband called Jeff and he called me."

        "Is that the guy?" Don called from the other room.

        "Maybe," she replied. She stood aside. "Come on in."

        "Thank ye, miss." Julius entered, dragging a tremendous carpetbag. It was massive, of the style brought down from the North during Reconstruction. A promising start, Melissa thought.

        "Tea? Coffee?"

        "Thank ye kindly, but no, miss. I subsist on more… esoteric draughts." His glittering eyes darkened momentarily. Freak, Melissa decided. But possibly one who could provide her with a ghost. Don finished his phone call and shook hands with the little man. Julius opened his bag and extracted various antiques: an obviously broken mantle clock, the hands askew and the glass cracked, but with some very pretty woodcarvings portraying the nine muses at work; a stuffed cat, less one eye and much fur; a weather vane featuring a demonic cast iron gargoyle; a yellow, shriveled monkey's paw; and the piece de resistance, three shrunken heads, grimacing in permanent discomfort, strung together like garlic.

        Melissa handled the heads and returned them to the coffee table. "These aren't real, are they?"

        "Oh, of course not, miss, of course not! Merely extremely convincing fakes. No less haunted for that, though."

        "Good." Melissa peered into the bag, wondering what else he had in there. Julius snapped it shut quickly, a look of hostility on his comical face; this quickly broke into an apologetic grin. Don went to the kitchen and returned with a beer.

        "Hmm. Very well. These objects are foci—any one of them has a powerful supernatural attraction, a link to the netherworld. This first piece here, this mantle clock, working, no, but haunted, yes. It belonged to the Duke of Heidelberg, in the ghost-tormented depths of the Black Forest."

        Don stirred on the couch. "Is Heidelberg in the Black Forest?"

        Julius continued. "Legend is—he bludgeoned his second and fifth wives with it. Their tortured spirits reside within."

        "Well, I'm very intrigued an' all," Melissa said. "But what else do you have?"

        "This cat—worshipped by a virgin-sacrificing Egyptian cult! The blood of maidens stains the fur!"

        "So it's stained?" Melissa said, examining the object. "Good for a discount, then?"

        "The weather vane! Quite spooky indeed! On stormy nights, the hellish visage you behold leaves its roost to spread terror abroad!" Julius shook the object; it rattled. "The monkey's paw! Pursued by its former owner, across Stygian gaps of space and time! And—these magnificent trophies," he said, indicating the heads, "were once righteous missionaries, their souls consigned to unending hell in diabolic rites."

        "D'you hear that, honey?" Melissa cooed. Don shrugged. "Diabolical rites!" She thought of the Vaughans' poltergeist—certainly nothing so dramatic as these selections. "What do you think?"

        "It's your decision." Don studied the label of his beer bottle. "I just write the checks." He winked at Julius. Melissa considered the objects for a moment. The Vaughans and their stupid new fad! She'd beat them, all right!

        "We'll take all of them."

* * *

        A week later, an invitation circulated among the better homes of Highland Park. It was printed on tasteful cream-colored paper, with a tasteful art-deco rendition of a classic Halloween ghost on the letterhead. It read:

Dear Friends,
         You are invited to the début of the most recent additions to the Speedwell household: a collection of exotic spirits from around the world! Come for a night of refreshments, chills, and thrills.
        This is a black tie event. Catering by the French Room.


        Reactions varied. Adrienne Vaughan smiled pleasantly, thinking, Good for her. She wanted a ghost of her own so badly, even while she thought, That little bitch. Ken Tooms, bishop of Dallas Methodist, frowned: It cannot come to good, this traffic in damned souls. Free hors d'ouevres, though, and maybe that minx Sharon will come. Then there was Gustav Valparaiso's column:

The Speedwells of Highland Park are throwing a terrifyingly exciting bash this coming Friday! Those lucky enough to be on the guest list can expect to see the Vaughans and Griffins, also of Highland Park, as well as some other interesting guests: Miguel Armendariz, the ardent Argentinean archon of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, for one. The stated intent of the Speedwell soirée is to show off their recently acquired collection of spectacular specters, which this humble journalist long ago declared the coming thing in haute couture…

        All Highland Park was a-quiver as the date drew near. Melissa, however, was less excited; the relics had failed to stir any supernatural activity of any kind. She flailed about the house, tearing from room to room, shaking them, cursing them, but nothing happened. The house remained adamantly un-haunted. Don followed her.

        "Honey, it sucks, I know, I'm sorry. Calm down, please, baby." Melissa shrieked as she knocked the stuffed cat from its perch and stomped on it. Her heels removed its extant eye. Cotton wool unspooled from the socket.

        "Ripped us off! They aren't haunted at all!" She stomped again, then sprang back in alarm. The cotton was suddenly red; blood poured from the missing eye, spilling out, soaking the mangy old fur, pooling, the pool growing bigger and bigger, covering half the room. Melissa backed away; the blood spread. Melissa and Don backed out of the room and Melissa, wordlessly, hands shaking, closed the door. After a moment blood seeped under the door. "Don… look…" she said. The hands on the clock were spinning, round and round, faster and faster; the nine muses twisted their wooden heads, grimacing at them. Then they sang, in a wordless tormented dissonance, a horrid caterwaul that scraped the soul as talons scrape a chalkboard. Don covered his ears. Melissa took his hands and he looked at her. But this wasn't terror on her face, oh, no… it was joy

        "Oh, Don, they work, they work, we're haunted! Oh, this party's going to be great, I know it!"

* * *

        The help mopped up the cat's blood and muffled the screaming with some heavy insulation; Melissa and Don put on their evening best, and all was ready. The house was decorated in ghoulish style, with fake cobwebs everywhere, a fake tombstone or two, and dry ice in the punch—all very tasteful. The five haunted relics occupied places of honor; each had its own pedestal about the house, ready to be adored.

        The guests arrived in Mercedes and Jags, in Audis and Caddies.

        "Melissa! Don't you look nice! Vera Wang?"

        "My dear—Oscar de la Renta."

        "Oh! Charming!"


        More guests, greeted in the colloquial fashion:

        "Oh, honey—how nice to see yeewwww!"

        "Look at yeeewwww!" And so on, until all had arrived and were munching on fried quail bonbons and morel risotto and drinking champagne or (in a nod to the proletariat) Shiner Bock. The bishop was there, chatting with Sharon Griswell, a divorcée-in-waiting, and Gustav Valparaiso, the columnist avec goatee formidable, examining the weather vane with Leslie Landau. Miguel Armendariz explained the difficulties of conducting ("More than waving a stick," he said) to a pliable and half-tipsy lioness of the Griffin clan; Don eavesdropped while making jokes about the missionary heads with Scott Vaughan. But none of these little rendezvous were quite so momentous as that of Adrienne and Melissa; after all, Melissa would never have thrown this party if not for Adrienne's noisy little ghost. Melissa hovered on a knife edge; she prepared all her powers of supercilious scorn if Adrienne showed disapproval. Simultaneously, she prepared to wilt (inwardly) with gratitude and clasp Adrienne once more to her bosom should her friend bestow the slightest smile (the slightest smile signaling the most complete acquiescence).

        Adrienne, champagne in hand, met Melissa before the stuffed cat. She tossed her head (hair by Paul Neinast) and considered the grotesquerie. She drank; Melissa waited, all a-tingle. "Well, my dear," Adrienne said, and paused briefly, wherein Melissa withered a dozen times, "congratulations." And there it was—the slightest smile.

        "Oh, this little thing?" Melissa said, almost exploding with joy.

        "You've done it," Adrienne said. "Good job—look!" Blood trickled from the cat's eye; blood leaked, then poured, then gushed in a raging torrent from the cat's eye.


        "It's doing it! Look!" The partygoers gathered 'round, sipping champagne and eating Moroccan shrimp with sugar cane and tomato jam. Blood soaked the pedestal and formed a widening pool, spreading in all directions. Nervous laughter broke out and the guests stepped back to avoid staining their shoes. Then, like a jet engine, the damned wailing of the muses burst forth from the clock, and the guests covered their ears. Someone dropped a glass. Melissa smiled, but a frown tugged at the corners of her mouth; the wailing was so loud, and it wasn't going away. The muses on the clock writhed, their little wooden hands outstretched in piteous supplication. Sharon backed away from the hideous blood-pond and the muses grabbed her by the hair. She yelped in surprise, laughed when she realized the cause of her entanglement, then cried as she pulled and pulled and the muses refused to release her, her surprise quickly changing to panic. A scream like a knife cut through the wind-tunnel roar of the monstrous figurines; a gargantuan monkey, a beast nine or ten feet tall, gripped Scott in its right paw (its left arm ended in a raw stump). Scott bellowed and pounded on the hairy fingers. The monkey dropped him and howled, pounding on its chest. The reverberations shook the chandelier.

        "That reminds me of when the kodo drummers came to the Meyerson last summer… quite something," Miguel Armendariz said, beating on his own chest in imitation. "Brrm! Brrm!"

        "Quelle gauche!" Gustav Valparaiso said, seconds before a cast iron gremlin leapt onto his scalp and raked wicked claws across his forehead. Screaming, he flailed and ran, swatting at the monster.

        Glasses dropped all over the place. Melissa shook her head; she wrung her hands. "No, no!" She clapped. "Everyone please be calm! They're quite harmless, really, just wait a second while I fetch a mop—"

        Adrienne squeezed her hand. "Honey, I'm gone. A for effort, really, but—maybe this isn't quite the thing for you." Melissa withered.

        "No, no, wait… it's fine, everyone, please, please wait…" Melissa realized she was talking to herself. Everyone was preoccupied by something or other. Sharon's scalp was bloody now where the muses tore at her hair; she sobbed as the gibbering manikins dragged her closer and closer. The bishop floundered on the floor in the inch-deep blood. Scott rolled beside him, clutching his broken ribs. Miguel Armendariz seized a poker from the fireplace and engaged the monstrous monkey in a duel; he was disarmed and fled. The amuse-bouches were in disarray, scattered in an ectoplasmic whirlwind; Don's face was a mask of horror as he tugged on her arm.

        "Let's go! Let's go!" Guests stampeded. Don and Melissa quailed as three spectral forms emerged from the opposite wall. They wore tattered clothing; they clutched Bibles to their chests; they truncated in headless stumps, blood dripping from the three open wounds…

        "My head…"

        "My head…"

        "My head…"

        Blood drenched Melissa and Don. Bodies lay everywhere.

        "Where is it?"

        "Where is it?"

        "Where is it?"

        The three ghosts lurched blindly. One found the bishop and cupped his head in its hands. Another found Don and gripped his skull; finally, the last one wrapped its ethereal hands around Melissa's head.

        "Here it is!"

        "Here it is!"

        "Here it is!"

* * *

        Gustav Valparaiso's next column read:

Most embarrassing for all was the Speedwell soirée of Friday last. A regrettable turn of events led to this humble journalist fleeing in panic from what was lately the household of friends, most recently a charnel nightmare. However, a quick sigh of relief is in order; all who suffered injury have made speedy recoveries. Suffice it to say, ghosts are officially passé, and we all look forward to the next coming thing. What it is, no one knows, but yours truly will keep his ear to the ground. But we can all assume that the venerable Vaughans of Highland Park will be there first. Even now, they erect some new excitement for the neighborhood behind high fences…

* * *

        All the neighborhood was there. The Griffins sat on their front porch, conversing idly with the Landaus, but really watching the construction workers in the Vaughans' yard. They had been working for several days now behind high privacy fences. Whatever they were installing, it involved a helicopter. Don and Melissa approached with their Pekinese. They both wore neck braces; the ghosts' attempts to pull their heads off had given them serious sprains.

        "Hey, guys!" Melissa waved.

        "Hello!" They were greeted warmly by the clans. "Beer?" Leslie Landau said.

        "Mm. Thanks, honey, but can't, not with the pain medication." Melissa rested her hand on her neck and winced.

        "How long you got to wear those?"

        "Coupla weeks," Don said. A ruckus from the Vaughan yard diverted their attention; workmen scrambled clear and a second later the panels of the privacy fence crashed down, kicking up a dust cloud. The dust dispersed, revealing by degrees a colossal silhouette. A massive nose, a prognathous profile—an Easter Island moai, sixteen feet tall, majestic as you please.

        Melissa gaped. Silence reigned. Don shifted uncomfortably, wondering what this could mean. Leslie finally broke the silence: "There's… there's something else, indeed."

        "Don…" Melissa tugged his sleeve. "Don… what can we do?"

        "Nothing, baby," he said. "They win, that's all."

        "No, Don. We can beat that. You gotta think of something. We can do better than that. We can't let those stuck-up Vaughans win again."

        "You can't be serious, baby." But her desperate look, her gentle squeezing of his hand told him that she was quite serious. He sighed, then took out his cell phone.

        "Jeff. It's Don. Call England. See how much they want for Stonehenge."






copyright 2007 Jens Rushing.

Jens Rushing is a writer from north Texas. His works appear in numerous small press publications; visit his web site at for a complete listing and some stories. Jens plays the concertina with the savvy of a midshipman. He is very young and already has far too many books.

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