For followers of our Gollancz Dark Fantasy page on Facebook, you’ll know that every Thursday we introduce you to a new series or book that we think you’ll be Thirsty for. This week’s Thirsty for Thursday title is THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH by Bethany Griffin which is published next week by our sister imprint Indigo.
Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s story of the same name, The Masque of the Red Death is a deeply atmospheric retelling of the spine tingling gothic tale. Transport yourself to post-apocalyptic 19th Century, where the world is in ruins after a devastating plague has decimated the population. For Araby Worth the only escape from her horrifying reality are the blissful oblivion of nights at the Debauchery Club, until one day she discovers something more… maybe even something to live for.
Pick up your masques and read the extract below for your first look into the Debauchery Club, then head over to our Facebook page to be in with a chance of winning a copy before it’s published.
The charcoal sky spits cold rain as we rumble to a stop at a crossroad. A black cart blocks the road, and even in an armored carriage we know better than to force our way past.
Burly men stagger to the cart, carrying something between them. Someone. One of the men stumbles, and the body wobbles in a horrifying way.
My friend April gags behind her mask. “Too bad your father didn’t design these things to keep out noxious smells as well as noxious diseases.”
I wonder whether the people remaining in the houses will be cold tonight. If they’ve wrapped their dead in their only blankets. They should know better.
The corpse collectors wear cloth masks, ﬂimsy and useless to stop the contagion. They roll their cart forward a scant hundred yards and stop again, unconcerned that they’re blocking trafﬁc. They don’t care that we have hell-raising and carousing to do in the Debauchery District.
The Debauchery District. The very name makes me shiver.
As I turn to April, prepared to complain about the delay, a girl is pushed through a doorway and into the street.
She is clutching something, and her emergence at the same time that the corpse collectors are making their daily appearance cannot be an accident. Other people appear in the doorway—the inhabitants of the house, perhaps—and I feel afraid for them because not a single one of them wears even a cloth mask.
A corpse collector approaches the girl. Before, I wanted him to hurry, but now each heavy footstep ﬁlls me with dread.
The girl is slight, and her ancient dress has been hemmed and stitched so that her arms and legs are visible, but with the rain and the half light, it’s impossible to tell if she is blemished or clean. The people in the house want her to give the man the bundle, but she turns away. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that she is cradling a baby.
She raises her face to the rain, her misery palpable.
I can’t explain how I know which drops of condensation running down her cheeks are rain and which are tears. But I do.
The girl’s eyes catch mine.
I feel something. The ﬁrst emotion I’ve felt all day, besides vague anticipation for tonight. This isn’t the sort of thing I want to feel. Gnawing and sick, it wells up from my stomach.
She breaks eye contact when a young man comes out of what’s left of the building; the roof has been blasted away, probably during some useless riot, and now the structure is covered with canvas. He grips the girl’s shoulders and forcibly turns her. I wonder if he is the father, wonder if he cared for the child in the bundle, or if he just wants to get the disease away from him, to keep it from forming a rash that scabs over and sinks through his skin. You don’t recover from this contagion. You contract it, and then you die. Quickly, if you are lucky.
I try to guess the age of the mother. From her posture, I’m supposing that she’s just a girl.
Maybe that’s why I feel connected to her, because we’re the same age.
Maybe it’s the eye contact she initiated. Usually they don’t look at us.
The girl’s grief is a mindless, crushing thing, and somehow I feel it, even though I am supposed to be numb. As the men tear the baby away, I feel an aching loss. I want to stretch out my own arms, pleading, but if I do, April might laugh.
My knees begin to shake. What is wrong with me? Soon I will be crying. At least no one is looking closely enough to discern the difference between my tears and
They toss the tiny body into the cart.
I ﬂinch, imagining that it makes a sound, even though I can only hear the rumble of the carriage and April’s exasperated sigh.
“You would think they’d be happy,” she says. “My uncle is paying a fortune to get rid of the bodies. Otherwise the lower city would be unlivable.”
If I pushed April and her sparkling silver eyelids out of the open carriage, the crowd lining this street might kill her. If I ripped the mask from her face, she’d probably be dead in a couple of weeks.
She doesn’t understand. She was raised in the Akkadian Towers and has never been on the streets. Not this one, not the one half a block to the west, where I once lived in complete darkness. She doesn’t know, and never will.
But I cannot be mad at April. I live for her, for the hours when she makes me forget, for the places where she takes me. Perhaps she’s right, and these people should be thankful to have men tear the corpses from their arms.
Out of the corner of my eye, I notice dark shapes creeping from between two buildings. I strain to see, but they never step out of the gloom. All of a sudden I’m afraid. This area can get violent, fast. The corpse collectors stomp toward another door, marked with a roughly painted red scythe, passing through shadows and back into the light. Their disregard accentuates the care the cloaked ﬁgures take to cling to the shadows.
April doesn’t notice.
Anything could be hidden under a dark cloak. Our driver curses and turns sharply, and we ﬁnally lurch past the body cart. When I look over my shoulder, the cloaked men have melted back into the shadows.
At last we can get on with our night.
We turn a corner, and our destination becomes visible. It’s in a slight depression, as if the entire city block sank a few feet into the ground after the buildings were erected. There’s a hot-air balloon tied to the top of the tallest building in the area. You can’t see the lettering, but everyone knows it marks the location of the district.
It is a ﬂoating reminder—not that we used to invent things and travel, but that if you can get to the place where the balloon is tethered and if you have enough money, you can forget about death and disease for a few hours.
“You’re a million miles away,” April says in the small voice she uses when she arrives earlier than expected and ﬁnds me gazing out into the falling rain.
I don’t know why she seeks out my company. She is animated. I’m barely alive. I stare into space and whimper in my sleep. When I’m awake, I contemplate death, try to read, but never really ﬁnish anything. I only have the attention span for poetry, and April hates poetry.
What April and I share are rituals, hours of putting on makeup, glitter, fake eyelashes glued on one by one. Our lips are painted on with precision; mindless mirror staring isn’t that different from gazing out into the toxic slush, if you really think about it. She could share this with anyone.
There’s no reason that it has to be me.
“Tonight is going to be insane,” she says happily. “You wait and see.”
People whisper about the Debauchery Club in the tattered remains of genteel drawing rooms, while they sip a vile substitute for tea from cracked china cups. Real tea was imported; we haven’t had anything like that in years.
The ﬁrst club we pass is the Morgue. It’s in an abandoned factory. They made bricks there, back when builders used to construct houses. We won’t need to build anything until all the abandoned buildings collapse, if there are any of us left by then.
The line to get into the Morgue stretches around the block. I scan the crowd, imagining that they are hopeful, that they crave admission as if their lives depended on it, but we’re too far away to read the expressions on their masked faces.
April and I pass this way frequently but never go inside. We are bound for the Debauchery Club, the place this entire district is named for. Membership is exclusive.
Our driver lets us out in an alley. The door is unmarked and unlocked. When we step into the foyer, it is completely dark except for a succession of throbbing red lights that are part of the ﬂoor. No matter how many times we come here, they still ﬁll me with curiosity. I run my foot over the ﬁrst one in the hallway, looking for some texture, something that differentiates it from the rest of the ﬂoor.
“Araby, come on.” April rolls her eyes. We remove our masks and place them in velvet bags to keep them safe.
Before the plague, the Debauchery Club was only open to men. But, like everyone else, the majority of the members died.
April and I are probationary members, sponsored by her brother, whom I have never met. We won’t be eligible for full membership until we are eighteen.
“This way, ladies.”
I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror and smile. I am not the person I was this morning. I am beautiful, fake, shallow, incognito. My black dress reaches my ankles and ﬂows over the whalebone corset that I appropriated from my mother’s closet. It’s not an outﬁt I could wear on the street, but I love it. I look impossibly thin and a little bit mysterious.
For a moment I am reminded of cloaked ﬁgures, also swathed in black, and smooth my dress nervously.
“I’ll loan you a pair of scissors,” April teases as she enters the examination room.
I laugh. Her own skirts are artfully cut above her knees. Our fashions changed when the Weeping Sickness ﬁrst came to the city. Long skirts could hide oozing sores.
I savor the feel of my skirts around my legs as I turn, watching myself in the mirror.
“Your turn, baby doll.”
I follow the velvety voice into the examination room.
If I were honest with myself, I might admit that these few moments are why I come here, week after week. Swirling tattoos cover his arms, climbing up from the collar of his shirt to twist around his throat, the ends hidden by his tousled dark hair. I try not to look at him. He could make me happy. His attention, a hint of admiration in his eyes . . . I don’t deserve happiness.
“You know the routine. Breathe in here.” He holds out the device. “Are you contagious this week?”
“Not a chance,” I whisper.
“Oh, there’s always a chance. You should be more careful.” He presses the red button so that the handheld device will ﬁlter the air expelled from my lungs.
There’s a needle in his hands now. I shiver.
“You enjoy this more than you should,” he says softly.
He puts my blood into some sort of machine. It has clockwork parts and a little brass knob, but I’m fairly certain that it doesn’t test anything besides credulity. Yet the serious way he performs his duties always makes me believe that he will know if I’ve contracted anything, and I breathe faster than normal. Nervous.
What will he do if I’m contaminated? Will he look at me with contempt? Kick me out into the street?
This is the only place in the city where we are safe without our masks. At home our servants wear masks so they don’t bring in contamination from the lower city. Here it would be an insult to suggest you need to ﬁlter the air. They only let one of us into this little room at a time, though. How can we be sure that other members aren’t secretly fouled by diseases?
“Looks like you’re clean this week, sweetheart. Try to stay that way.” He dismisses me with a wave of his hand. “Oh, and next time you should wear the silver eye stuff. It’d look better on you than it does on your friend.”
As he turns away, I raise my hand toward him without meaning to. If he were standing closer, I would have touched him.
I never touch people.
Not on purpose. Luckily, he doesn’t see my traitorous hand or the expression on my face.
I enter the club through a curtain of silver beads. I imagine sometimes that they make a beautiful sound when I move through them, but I have never heard even the tiniest clink. It’s like the secrecy of this place has seeped into the furnishings.
April hasn’t waited for me. We perpetually lose and ﬁnd each other in this maze of rooms. She and I enjoy our time here in different ways.
The building is ﬁve stories tall, average for this part of town. It was built to house apartments, but now all of the rooms are connected by long hallways and half-open doors.
The only constant, the way that you can tell that you’re still in the club and haven’t wandered into some other building, is that there is a representation of a dragon in every room. Some of them are carved into furnishings, some are displayed in glass cases, but everywhere we are watched by red eyes.
In some rooms Persian carpets cover the ﬂoors, and in other rooms they are afﬁxed to the walls, either to mufﬂe sound or to absorb the scent of tobacco or opium smoke. The upper ﬂoors house forbidden libraries; one room is ﬁlled with books on the occult, and another has volumes detailing sexual acts that I never dreamed existed. I like books, but I tend to gravitate toward the lower ﬂoors, where there is music.
I move from room to room. These spaces are always crowded, ﬁlled with bodies, mufﬂed conversation, occasional dancing, and even some kissing in dark corners. April and I are far from the only females who have joined this club.
Hours trickle by, and I wilt. The magic isn’t here for me tonight. I can’t get away from the heavy feeling of being me. I want to blend in, to be someone besides myself, someone who is part of something secret and subversive and exciting.
A guy is following me. He’s thin and blond, wearing a too-formal outﬁt, dark pants, a blue shirt buttoned to the next-to-last button. He doesn’t ﬁt in this room ﬁlled with ornate settees, where a girl, accompanied by a violinist, is singing about suicide. He says something to me, but I can’t hear him. I keep walking.
He follows me into the women’s washroom.
Girls stare at their reﬂections in a dark room ﬁlled with mirrors.
I push past them to the chambers behind. A girl tries to jab a high heel into my foot. I jump back, and don’t meet her eyes; don’t want her to see how the sneer makes me wince.
He shuts the door behind us. Doors in this club are well oiled and make no sound when they close. So thick that you can’t hear what happens behind them.
“What do you want?” he asks in an amused voice. His self-assurance makes him seem older than he looks. I’m guessing that he would be a student at the university, if it were still open.
“Oblivion.” It is what I am always looking for.
“What’s a pretty girl like you trying to forget?”
A pretty girl like me, with my clean ﬁngernails and my unblemished bill of health.
He doesn’t know anything about me.
“Do you have what I want or not?”
He produces a silver syringe.
“I doubt you know what you want,” he mutters in a voice that calls me foolish. An amateur. I ignore a sharp burst of anger, determined to get what I need to defeat it and any other emotion that might try to creep in. I’m not an amateur.
I eye the syringe.
“Busy night?” I ask.
“I don’t usually share.”
I hand him some bills. He barely glances at them before he shoves the money into his pocket. His eyebrows are blond; they make him look perpetually surprised.
I hold out my arm to him. “Do it.”
“Don’t you want to know what’s in this thing?”
I didn’t think he could look more surprised. The blond eyebrows intrigue me.
Whatever is in his syringe, it’s cold, and the world blurs around me.
“Where do you want to go?”
“Back to the violinist. I want to hear songs about suicide.”
As we leave the room I trip over the threshold. He puts his hand on my arm.
“I hope you ﬁnd what you need,” he says, and sounds like he means it.