The house on the corner of Milton Street was a disturbing cacophony of Victorian folly and Gothic horror, its turrets and spires and towers and gargoyles sprawled indecently over a neglected garden of two acres, choking on weeds, bordered by looming tangles of thorn bush and nettles, horsetail and foxglove, deadly nightshade and old man's beard. The house had been deserted for years, and the occasional smashed window was testament to the daring of the kids off the Stanmore estate, for like all ancient and derelict houses in small market towns the world over, it was believed to be haunted by the kids and ne'er-do-wells thereabouts.
It stood alone, at the top of the hill, diabolical and dominating, and was known throughout the district as "Dwarf House", having been built by the most notorious occultist and homosexual of the early nineteenth century, Lord Lucien Lovelock, with an army of midgets that he had brought back from the tropics. It was reputed to be built upon the bones of dead homunculi, and to be sure, in a certain shadowy corner of the garden, hidden from general view by an uncommonly ornamental outdoor privy, was a dwarfling graveyard. In 1843 Lord Lucien died without issue, and the house passed to his sister Mariah, a black hearted hag as cold and awful as the grave, who was infamous throughout the kingdom for her ghoulish devotion to the dark arts.
Mariah lived in the house for fifty years, during which time pets and farmyard animals from nearbyneighbourhoods would often be reported missing, only to turn up later, without explanation,mutilated beyond all description, and there was an unprecedented number of child abductions. Although it was never proven, and nobody would have dared to say so, anybody who had ever walked past the house, and through the rank miasma of malignancy and perversion in which it seemed to exist, who had caught the briefest glimpse of the loathsome death mask that was Mariah's face from some grimy upstairs window, or who had witnessed the fugitive comings and goings of semi-naked swarthy looking pygmies to and from the house in the darkest hours of the night, could possibly doubt that it was in the unspeakable bowels of Dwarf House that those hundreds of missing children might be found, or at the very least, their savagely desecrated little corpses.
One of the last children to go missing was a little girl by the name of Erma Pugh, whose father was the landlord of the Dwarf's Head public house, on the next corner but one. He had been half blinded by a musket ball in the Crimean war, and was affectionately known to the locals as One-Eyed Pete. His common-law wife, Emily, was ripe of breast but weak of mind, and when little Erma wentmissing, she became catatonic and had to be taken to Moonstruck Mansions, a rambling lunatic asylum on the outskirts of Basingstoke, where she was to spend the rest of her days.
With his beloved daughter missing, and his buxom wife in the booby hatch, One-Eyed Pete was consumed with rage and righteous anger, so, taking a pair of duelling pistols that he had won in a card game from beneath the bar, he stormed up to Dwarf House with the intention of killing the witch once and for all. There were no witnesses that night, and exactly what took place amidst the boundless shadows of Dwarf House that fateful evening is destined to be forever shrouded in mystery. Two facts, however, are well documented, and they are these: that One-Eyed Pete gained entry to the house and shot black Mariah at close range through the heart, which killed her, and was later found hanged by his own suspenders from the banisters of the second floor landing.
When the police arrived some two hours later, they found a number of alarmed looking midgets cowering in one of the fireplaces. The midgets were photographed and fingerprinted and then sent by rail to a workhouse for impoverished circus performers in Plaistow, where they spent their days inhaling toxic fumes and oiling the fast moving parts of dangerous machinery.
As befits a witch, Mariah's head was cleaved from her body, which in turn was hacked into small pieces and buried in an unmarked grave in the dark of night.
The house then fell into the possession of the Lovelocks' last remaining blood relative, a distant cousin from Plymouth. His name was Sir Neville Nightingale-Lovelock, and he was a keen explorer and amateur geologist who had made a substantial fortune in the Ivory trade. Now in his fifties, and with a dicky heart, he moved into the house in Milton Street in the winter of 1893 with his mistress, a beguiling and voluptuous twenty-two year old Jewess named Salome.
Sir Neville was something of a dandy; he was also a fool. With the absurd high regard that he held for himself, he imagined that Salome was as smitten with him as he was with her, but he couldn't have been further from the truth. Salome found him to be effeminate, ridiculous and tedious, as he pranced around the drawing rooms of fashionable society like some limp-wristed cock-jockey, boring anyone who came within a hundred yards near to death with self-aggrandizing fabrications regarding his various exploits in Africa and the Indian sub-continent, or with presumptuous public readings of his latest geological monographs. Salome was in it for the money, pure and simple. She had already put a lot of serious thought into the best way of finishing him off; in the mean time she had introduced him to opium, laudanum and strangulation, in the hope that nature would somehow take the decent course.
With olive skin and hair that ran in raven ringlets down her back, with black eyes and pneumatic breasts and the thighs of a chorus girl, Salome was a woman that men would kill or die for. To be in the same room as Salome was to be driven into a state of near psychotic sexual frenzy. To feel the touch of her hand or the whisper of her breath was to experience an erection so immediate, so ferocious, so savage and unyielding, that many men simply set fire to their testicles and leapt to their deaths from the nearest bridge or high building, or were found completely out of their minds in some backwater miles from anywhere, nuts deep in a farmyard animal or idiot peasant girl, with absolutely no recollection of how they came to be there.
As the months passed, Sir Neville slipped ever deeper into opium and laudanum addiction, spending days, and often weeks at a time in corpse-like states of narcosis. On such occasions Salome would throw on her most outrageous lace corsets and panties, her seamed silk stockings and fur cape, and slip out into the night to hail a hansom cab that would deliver her to St. John’s barracks, four miles outside the town. While her days, so like a prison sentence, dragged heavily on in a fetid smog of drug abuse and sado-masochism, her nights flew by in a cocaine fuelled orgy of secret encounters, illicit affairs and indiscriminate anal sex.
It was at the barracks that she met and fell in love with a young prostitute by the name of Morganna, who was, as she proudly informed anyone who would listen to her, the youngest daughter of the Archbishop of Winchester, and as thoroughly depraved and promiscuous as Salome herself. It wasn't long before the pair of them decided that now was the time to put an end to Salome's mincing and flaccid live-in lover. The following Saturday night, Salome returned by cab to Dwarf House, with Morganna in tow. Sir Neville was just beginning to surface from a week long laudanum nightmare, and became positively chipper when he perceived that they had a guest. With soft whispers and sweet seductions they lulled him into a state of unguarded sensual abandon, before tying him hand and foot to the post of the bed, where they injected him with a near lethal dose of cocaine and put a bag over his head, before violently and mercilessly fucking him and his dicky heart to death.
The demise of Sir Neville signalled the end of the Lovelock bloodline, and Salome assumed ownership of Dwarf House, and dived passionately into her love affair with Morganna. With an enthusiasm only the very young and the very high on drugs can muster, Salome set about transforming Dwarf House completely; she intended to recreate it in her own image. She got rid of the morbid old masters that Nightingale had insisted on hanging all over the place, replacing them with lush and exotic wall hangings, drapes, and richly dyed Persian carpets. She collected up all of Neville's books on geology, along with his monographs, diaries and letters, and burnt them in thegarden, before refilling the shelves in the house with erotic literature, poetry and philosophy, and adorning the walls with suggestive paintings and lithographs, depicting every kind of deviant sexual perversion. In the ballroom, which both Sir Neville and the harridan Mariah before him had kept disused and empty, she put a harpsichord, and installed a wet bar that ran down the entire length of one wall, filling the remaining space with expensive and luxurious furniture; chaise lounges and settees upholstered in fur, velvet and satin. She polished the suits of armour that stood silently in crannies and alcoves all over the house until they gleamed and shone like tin gods, and then equipped each one with a monstrous rubber penis, for the edification of visitors.
She redesigned a dozen of the boudoirs on the first and second floors, each one a riot of decadent opulence, with mirrors from floor to ceiling, and bed sheets of silk, cobwebs and rubber. Finally she turned her attention to the cellar, the unholy site of Black Mariah's most atrocious excesses of evil; it was odious and repugnant; it was like stepping into a nightmare. Covering a large part of the floor and daubed on every wall were colossal inverted pentagrams; there were altars to the Dark One covered in magickal symbols that had been drawn with a profane mixture of blood and faeces; there were inverted crucifixes and books bound in human skin. There was the decaying evidence of human and animal sacrifice, and manacles, handcuffs, slave collars and chains hung from heavy iron rings in the stone walls. There was a rack, there was an iron maiden, and above the main altar the Lord's Prayer had been written backwards, daubed in blood and spunk. There was a large round hole in the middle of the floor, so deep and unfathomable that Salome couldn't see the bottom. It threw up a stream of air, ice cold and pestilent, and she imagined she could hear within it the desolate wailing of souls in purgatory, or lost in the eternal twilight between life and death. But the pièce de résistance, the master stroke - and a stroke of diabolical genius it truly was - was the disembodied head of a goat, infested with maggots and in a state of putrid liquefaction, impaled upon a thick wooden stake dead in the centre of the room. Eventually she decided that she'd just air the place a bit to get rid of the worst of the smells, and call it the dungeons.
So decided, she took hold of the horns of the dead goat's head, and with a shudder of revulsion cast the blasphemous monstrosity down into the hole. She waited for the sound of it hitting the bottom, but no sound returned to her. She surmised that the hole was far deeper than she had hitherto imagined; she wondered if it might go down forever.
But a practical girl was Salome, and not given to gratuitous bouts of navel gazing morbidity, so after throwing a couple of planks and a rug over the hole so that no-one would fall down it, she collected Morganna, and they set off for the local orphanage at St. Cross, to recruit a handful of young andmorally bankrupt hostesses for the City of Winchester's newest - and most depraved - den of iniquity and vice; Salome and Morganna's Palace of Pain and Pleasure.
In 1896 Salome died of consumption, leaving Morganna despairing, bewildered and alone, with no idea about what to do next. It seemed to her like her very reason for living had been stolen away, and she drifted through life like a shade.
She continued to preside over Salome and Morganna’s Palace of Pain and Pleasure, but her heart wasn’t in it. She stopped going out of the house, and wandered from room to room like a wraith, oblivious to the girls and their patrons and their variousstatesof undress and impropriety. Finally, in 1897, she closed the brothel for good, and after covering the furniture in bed sheets and boarding up the doors and windows, she packed a single cardboard suitcase, and took passage on a Cunard liner bound for New York.
The Anglican Church and the local Tory press triumphantly reported a revival of moral rectitude, and a victory for Victorian prudishness, to the chagrin of the general public. It was the end of an era, it seemed, an exciting era of daring sexual and pharmaceutical liberty, over before it had even really begun. But Salome and Morganna would remain cherished in the hearts of the people, fondly remembered as the most notorious harlots of the Victorian age.
Dwarf House stood empty until Morganna turned up again three years later, in the autumn months of the year 1900, with a handsome and charming young man on her arm. He was an Irish American by the name of Artemis Simpson, and they had met in Greenwich Village, where Morganna rented a loft apartment, and Art was a bookseller and dealer in curiosities. For Morganna, whose experience with the opposite sex had been hitherto limited to sordid transactions with squaddies, dockers, cross-dressers and a few sexually corrupt politicians and men of the cloth, Art was a revelation. He was intelligent, amusing and cultured, and the only man she had ever met, with the exception of her father, who treated her as anything more than a hole to shove his cock in. He showed her the museums and art galleries, they went to the theatre and took in shows on Broadway; they blew bundles of cash in Bloomingdale’s and drank coffee in the sleepy evening sunshine of the Soho sidewalks.
Art’s affection for the city and its inhabitants, his passion for art and culture, and his boundless enthusiasm for life and the experiences that arose within it infected Morganna with the breathless joy of an adolescent girl. Not only did he treat her as a person of value; he exhibited not a single sign of shock, embarrassment or disgust when she chose to reveal to him the facts of her former life; as a matter of fact his attitude towards people in general seemed to be a friendly tolerance; a warmacceptance; a generous compassion. When she asked him, one Sunday afternoon, as they wandered through Central Park with the warm spring sun lighting up their faces, how he could remain so unaffected, so non-judgemental, after learning of the things she had done in life that left her with such a deep and abiding shame, he smiled easily at her, his blue eyes twinkling, and said: “I don’t know a single person who is one hundred percent happy with the way they are. I don’t know a single person who wouldn’t change something about themselves if they could. I, for instance, have particularly hairy ears. If there’s one thing I would change about myself it is that. My hairy ears. Which leads me to conclude that nobody would be the way they are if they could possibly help it. When you think about it like that, making judgements about yourself, or anybody else, for that matter, seems an entirely pointless waste of time.”
From that day onward, slowly but surely, she began to reassemble the parts of herself that had always felt divided, and more and more she walked through life with an attitude of grateful acceptance, and the serenity that comes with knowing that you are at home in the world.
It was during a subsequent stroll through the park as spring turned into summer that Art asked Morganna to be his wife, and barely a month later they were married in a registry office in the Village, with Stumpy, the crippled ex-soldier who ran the news stand outside the bookstore acting as best man, and a couple of randomly collared passers-by bearing witness.
After a brief but torrid honeymoon they boarded a White Star liner bound for Portsmouth harbour. They were returning briefly to the Old Country, to put their affairs in order, to lay the past to rest, and to sell Dwarf House to the very first bidder.