Vintage Visitor to Providence (homage to H. P. Lovecraft)

The “Providence Journal” is holding a H. P. Lovecraft themed short story contest, and I thought I’d give it a go …  the judges will be looking for writing in the Lovecraft style, and “florid prose,” which I’m afraid I haven’t yet mastered.  1500 words or less, one entry per person, submitted by July 26.  I thought I’d post my attempts first to my blog for some feedback ….

Here’s my first attempt … (constructive comments welcomed), hopefully future attempts will be more closely aligned to the HPL style:

Vintage Visitor to Providence, by Beth Hurd

Jillian peered out the front window – it had been a dreary day, the continual drizzle keeping any potential customers of the vintage clothing store away. She wondered if she should close early, maybe her boss wouldn’t mind. It was dark outside, making it seem dark inside the shop. She was used to working alone, but on dismal-looking days like this, she’d rather have company.

Well, she did have some company – Lady Margaret, nick-named Maggie, the shop owner’s ancient cat which lived in the shop. She and the cat got along famously – if they ignored each other. She would have preferred company of the human kind today. In the long hours between visitors to the store, she would talk aloud to the cat, mostly gibberish, sometimes ranting about the last customer who had messed up the ladies’ under-things without actually buying something.

The shop was located in the bottom level front of a 19th century building on Providence’s fashionable east side, but on a side street.  Word of mouth brought in some curious kinds to check out the shop’s offerings. Off the beaten path, there was often long stretches between visitors. It was one of the most popular in Providence, often frequented by college students looking for an eccentric kind of look.

Sitting behind the counter, Jillian checked her inventory lists. Picking up the shop’s telephone to make a call, she was startled as a tall, older gentleman slowly entered the store. He nodded at her while shaking the raindrops from his hat, replacing it back on his head. Strange – she hadn’t seen a hat like his in many years, although they offered a wide selection of vintage hats in the shop.

Now she really wished she had company – a co-worker, her boss, a friend – anybody. This guy, without having said a single word, was giving her the creeps. The weather didn’t help, and the fact that he was completely dressed in black. He slowly removed his small round glasses to wipe the raindrops from them. His face was thin, gray and wizened, his eyes, red-rimmed and slightly protruding, his frame, gaunt. I’m sure he’s quite harmless, she thought. She couldn’t quite guess at his age – perhaps he had some kind of medical condition which had affected his complexion?

She usually enjoyed seeing the characters who entered the shop – some genuinely eccentric, a few coming in to sell items, others just to look around.

“Can I help you with something today, or are you just looking?,” she asked, trying to sound cheerful despite the gooseflesh she felt running up her arms. She tried to keep the tremor from her voice.

He peered around the shop, slowly touching items without picking them up. Had he heard her? Perhaps he was deaf?  “Well, let me know if you need any assistance,” she said more to herself. The visitor continued to walk slowly toward the back of the shop, a section containing men’s clothing and other items. As he passed, she caught the faint scent of a mixture of pipe tobacco and wet tweed. He could have walked in out of the twilight zone, she thought.

He pushed on slowly to the back room. A shriek made her jump and nearly fall from her stool – Maggie, running faster than she imagined the old cat ever could, darted out of the room, as the man grunted his disdain, having perhaps stepped on the animal’s tail.

Jillian gave a shriek of her own, righting herself by grabbing onto the counter. She called out to the cat, mostly to reassure the visitor that the cat belonged in the store, and wasn’t some wild animal that had snuck inside.

“Sorry about that, forgot to warn you about our in-house security system,” she said, nervously laughing. He barely acknowledged her, and continued to touch items slowly on the shelves. He hadn’t said a word since entering the shop. Why was he even out walking in this horribly dismal weather? She hadn’t heard a car pull up outside before he entered. He seemed to be muttering to himself … she couldn’t make out any of the words, surely he couldn’t be addressing her?

“I was just about to close up the shop, before you came in, it’s been a slow day …,” she began again, just to see if he might respond to her. She was interrupted by the shrill ringing of the shop phone, which she grabbed quickly, startled by the sudden noise. She heard only a dial tone when she put it to her ear, before she could even greet the caller. She laughed again nervously, noticing that the weather outside was starting to worsen. A sudden bright flash of lighting brightened the shop for a second, plunging back into near darkness almost immediately. It was followed by a loud crack of thunder. She tried to see what the man in the back room was doing … the noises he was making had become more furtive, his movements more frenetic, knocking items to the floor as he reached up to higher shelves.

“There is a step-stool there, if you need it,” she called out from behind the counter. She thought to walk back to assist him, but the noises he was making, which included growling, were that of a mad man. Was he mentally challenged? Was he even speaking English? She imagined he was making a mess back there, after hearing several items being knocked into each other.

Now Jillian was trying to think of a way to get him to leave the store.  She slowly turned to walk back towards the room he was in, wishing it was better illuminated back there. Note to self, she thought, another lamp or brighter bulbs needed.

Another sharp light issued from the storm, making her jump, as she nearly knocked over a mannequin at the end of the counter. She grabbed the figure by its waist, as its hat flew off its painted head.

A crack of thunder sent Maggie flying by her feet. Jillian continued towards the back room, where she could see that the man was now flinging items off the shelf – small books, book ends and other trifles, over his shoulder while he continued to mutter.

“Look, mister, if you could tell me what you’re looking for, maybe I could help you,” she said loudly, just in case he was hard-of-hearing. He acted as though he hadn’t heard. As she reached up to touch his shoulder to get his attention, another loud crack of thunder echoed from outside and the shop plunged into darkness. Jillian spun around, knocking over a rack of men’s coats. The visitor also turned, and knocked over another rack of men’s shirts. Both fell into each other, as more racks of clothing fell on them like dominos. Without electricity, the shop was dark as night. Flashes of lightning illuminated the back room, allowing her to see flashes of the man’s face as he flailed about, his arms hitting her. He was now screeching as if finally aware of the storm and darkness. She tried to claw her way out of the piles of clothes, but was hopelessly tangled – with him flailing on top of her.

During their macabre wrestling match, she could smell his scent even stronger, and something else she didn’t recognize – what she imagined death would smell like. “Get off, get off me,” she screamed, trying to get out from under him. He continued to shriek and, trying to push off the clothes, elbowed her in the nose.

She finally broke away from under him and crawled her way in the dark towards the front room. He finally stopped shrieking, but was still muttering loudly. She could make out some words, it almost sounded like “after all these years, my book, I found it.”

Just as suddenly as they went off, the shop’s lights came back on. She was now standing, ready to run out of the shop into the night, but she paused to look back at him, now sitting up on the floor of the back room. He was clutching a small, ancient-looking leather-bound volume, one he had found on the top shelf before the lights went out. The store didn’t usually carry books but once in a while the shop owner kept a few on the shelves for ambience.

“I found it,” he muttered again, as he painfully made his way to his feet, his glasses askew. He slowly made his way to where Jillian was now standing, horrified, behind the counter. Her hand was on the phone, ready to call the police if he exhibited anymore erratic behavior.

He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a pile of crumbled dollar bills. He grunted as he dropped them on the counter, and as she watched aghast, he slowly limped out of the store into the dark night.


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