Dark tales competition - Winner

Catrin Mascall

Dark Tales
Dark tales competition


Catrin is a former creative writing and English A-level teacher, with a BA and an MA in Creative Writing from St Mary’s University and the University of Portsmouth, respectively. Her 2021 new year’s resolution was to enter a writing competition every month, and this is her first win, after placing third in the Win Your Way to Swanwick competition. She loves to read and write dystopian fiction, and is currently working on her debut novel about the lighter side of the zombie apocalypse. 

Dark Tales By Catrin Mascall

I don’t want to be a part of it, you know. This whole cure bollocks: shamblers like me, learning to love again, turning back into humans. That’s all we could want, right? To escape this life of cold, insatiable hunger, to gain back our warm bodies, to feel the electric current of life coursing through our rotten tendons and corroded bones? To live again, and maybe even find love with the living..
Not me. Screw being alive.
Humans are weak. And delicious.
But apparently, everyone else wanted it. Even the ones whose skin had festered away to grey mutton; even the ones whose eyes hung limply from their sockets, like ping-pong balls in an old condom (can you imagine their dating profiles?). They all wanted it. Except me. Cure – urgh. That word just makes me want to chunder.
The rough stone walls rattled, dust showering down over my limp, straggly hair. Shaking my head, I glared at the ceiling. I’d been so pissed when things started to get back to normal. I loved living down here, stalking through the tunnels, staking my claim to ruined Britannia. Except it was building itself back up, and I was going to be the one left behind.
At the moment it was okay... one might even call it bearable. The powers-that-be hadn’t forced their way back down to my station yet, and there were only a few trains back up and running each day. A few trains a day meant more people in the tunnels, too. That was fine – I didn’t mind that. It meant I didn’t even have to venture outdoors for a snack. The vending machines were loaded with goodies, once again.
Peering into the stacked tanks all around my little office, I sighed. I needed to get up to the surface soon and get some fresh water. The glass was beginning to go distinctly green and slimy, which really affects the taste (even with a sprinkle of smoked paprika). Your spoils can go rubbery and tough if the water isn’t fresh enough. You don’t want that. Like eating squid.
The perfect brain, when you bite into it, has just the right amount of give. Your teeth should slide through the jumbled nerves firmly, and the spritz of plasma and old blood should ballet across your tongue, rather than tango. The flesh still tender, but not too yielding. I just wish there was a way to warm them up. I tried a camping stove, but after I’d boiled three lovely brains to mush I gave up. I’d never been good at cooking, not even before. What I wouldn’t give for a microwave...
But there’s nothing quite like the taste when the human is still alive.
I fantasised, my eyes rolling back, remembering my last spontaneous feast. Usually I save them, bring them home, take them to bits and feast slowly, but this one – man. This one had been worth it.
I hadn’t even been hungry. I’d enjoyed a sewage worker just that morning – his brain was a little tough, but juicy enough once you got to the middle. Naturally, his life had been an absolute joke, but it gave me a good laugh while the gristly globules slid down my throat. I almost choked on one big bit – eyes bigger than my stomach. Mum always said I needed to chew my food for longer.
I’d been taking a nap in the afternoon, in fact; one of my rituals after a good meal. But her high-pitched little voice had roused me. My hearing was very sensitive. I laid down the book I was reading, and crept out into the dark tunnels. The next station wasn’t too far down, and another train wasn’t due for twenty minutes.
The minute I saw her I was seized with an uncontrollable urge to kill.
There she was. A simpering pink and white dress, skipping across the slabs of uneven concrete, a battered teddy swinging in her hand. She stared around her, eyes bulging, taking in the huge, cavernous tunnel and the faded posters peeling from the walls. The lights were still dim, then, so it seemed like the tunnel went on forever – or at least, it did to her under-formed and inferior mind. She thought she’d find out if she was right.
As her mother and father watched the flickering digital display and reminisced about London Before, I saw my chance. She pirouetted away from them, caught up in some foolish, puerile fantasy no doubt. The heart-shaped locket around her neck bounced into the air as she jumped and twirled, catching the light. And lurking in the darkness under the edge of the platform, I waited. Her dangling teddy bear’s button eyes saw me, but she never did.
One step, two step – hop, skip, jump. The skirt of her dress floated up for a second, baring pale pink knees. One more step.
My grimy fingers curled around her ankle, leaving dark smudges on her pristine white sock.
I’d grabbed her before she could even squeal, ramming my molars through her cranium, crunching and shattering her skull in one fluid motion. I’d felt the blood gush, plummet down my leathery throat, warm and wet, followed by chunks of brain matter; I’d felt the neurons firing down my gullet, scrambling for purchase on my cadaverous, rotten organs.
The memories were hilarious. Going on the slide. Eating pancakes. Birthday balloons. Being pushed by Daddy on the swing. Such dull, clichéd little-kid moments. The only good bits were when she had to run from monsters like me: screaming with terror, little blue eyes wide open. She had barely lived, and now she never would. But the insipid memories were more than made up for by how good she tasted.
I grinned at the thought, relishing it once again, my tongue slithering over black gums and slipping between thin, cracked lips. Fishing her locket from my pocket, I rubbed my fingers over the smooth metal, caressing the ridges, snapping it open and shut, open and shut.
The walls shook, harder this time, knocking me from my reverie. There was an unfamiliar sound in my ears – a harsh, grating, consistent drone – and all at once I realised what was happening. I was used to trains barrelling past, rattling my little sanctuary, sprinkling dust all over my precious brains. But that wasn’t a train.
It was a drill.
I cursed, careening around my office, stuffing my most prized possessions into a burlap sack. Furious with myself for not staying alert, I realised that the sounds were much closer than I should have let them get before acting. I wouldn’t be able to move any of my tanks – that was at least five good brains down the drain!
Scrabbling for the door handle, I took one last look around at my haven. I’d always known this day would come, but I’d also got complacent. It had been so long since they’d discovered the cure, so long since anyone had tried to interfere...
The plaster cracked with an echoing crunch. I heard bricks smashing to pieces, rubble tumbling down forgotten stairways. Heavy, hostile footfalls thundered down, down, down... there must have been at least ten of them. Too many, even for me. One final, terrible crash resounded around my station, and I knew they’d broken through. Time to go.
‘Pass me that torch, will you? My batteries are shot,’
‘How’s it looking down there?’
‘Well, I’ll be able to tell you once I can actually see, Dave...’
‘Oh, crap, yeah. Torch. There you go–’
I opened the door a crack, staring out into the black. A wan, jaundiced circle of light appeared, far down the platform. The footsteps came much, much closer...then stopped abruptly, about twenty feet away.
‘You’d all better get over here, quick,’
Lighter footsteps ran to meet him, tripping over displaced chunks of concrete, kicking them clumsily to the depths of the platform.
I could see them all now. They stood side by side, several men, peering down into the gloom.
‘My god...’
The yellow discs of their torches slowly illuminated broken rib cages, jagged spinal columns, splintered femurs and shattered skulls, scattered all over the tracks. The group stood there for a hushed moment, taking in my masterpiece, admiring my work. I smiled.
Then the biggest one inhaled sharply, getting down on his hands and knees and reaching into the multitude. He grabbed something and straightened up.
‘Guess the search is over,’ he said gruffly.
In his hands, he held what remained of a frilly pink & white dress, its torn hem trailing on the grimy platform.
‘It’s one of them, isn’t it? One of them killed her,’ the smallest one whipped around nervously, scanning the shadows.
‘Nah. Can’t be. It’s over. They’re all cured, right?’ This one was taller, but had a thin, reedy voice. I enjoyed hearing the uncertainty creep into it. ‘Right?’
‘Could be they missed one. Could well be...’
They stood shoulder to shoulder, craning their necks. Three torches between them, only one shotgun. Easy pickings.
I let a low growl emanate from my throat, feeling my stomach rumble expectantly. Leering, I pushed the door of the office closed, and slid into the enveloping darkness of the tunnels. I let the locket slip from my fingers as I went.  

Judges Comments

What a malevolent intelligence Catrin Mascall conjures in her winning entry in WM's Dark Tales competition. Her brain-eating zombie sets out their stall from the beginning, revelling in the anti-social, transgressive pleasures of being a deviant brain-eater that embraces its state and adamantly doesn't want to be 'cured'.

So, not just any old zombie, but one with psycopathic tendencies, which makes the clear, malign logic of the interior voice in which this story is told all the more disturbing. Actively rejecting values that the majority of humans would see as decent, Catrin's creation has a malign, cunning sentience that is chilling.

The whole story has a dystopian contemporary relevance, being set in the aftermath of social collapse as people are working to re-establish a functioning society. Catrin's narrator is a non-conformist survivalist refusenik, embracing their outsider status and fiercely defending their territory - which means the habitat where they can hunt their diet of brains. Although the central character is a staple of the horror genre, Catrin has interpreted the trope with an individual slant, with the division of her fictional world into an overground that is striving to re-establish order and an underground where disorder reigns.

Catrin's rendering of this story is bold and transgressive, as a dark tale demands. Her creature consumes a child, and is not punished. They take on the forces of right and reason, and triumph. Darkness, in this story, is the more powerful force, and quite terrifyingly, it prevails.


Shortlisted and runner-up
Runner-up in the Dark Tales Competition was Deborah Hugill, Northallerton, North Yorkshire, whose story is published on www.writers-online.co.uk
Also shortlisted were: Jane Ayrie, York; Terry Baldock, Droitwich Spa, Worcestershire; Dominic Bell, Hull; Michael Callaghan, Glasgow; Daren Carpmail, Smethwick, West Midlands; Susan Condon, Rochford, Essex; Kim Gravell, Powys; Anita McQuade, Plymouth; James Perkin, Bentley, South Yorkshire; Irene Pizzie, Nantwich, Cheshire; Tracey-Anne Plater, Braintree, Essex; Kirsty Sugar, Monmouth; Jolyon Walford, Birmingham.