I love Victorian Gothic. One of my favourite novels is Wuthering Heights, I love the bleak moors and the sense of romance and I wanted to write my own lesbian version of a Victorian Gothic that is perhaps a touch more lighthearted!
Victorian Gothic horror must have an overbearing mansion, powerful and relatives with secrets, locals with doom-laden warnings, and desolate moors with little escape. All I did was sprinkle in a lesbian love story and a menacing werewolf to create my spooky short story; The Black HoundAn overbearing mansion, doom-laden warnings, and a werewolf in the desolate moors are all features in Niamh Murphy's spooky lesbian short story: The Black Hound Click To Tweet
THE BLACK HOUND
It was a dead place.
She stumbled as she navigated the awkward tufts of grass and gorse bushes, tripping as she caught her foot in a hole.
There were no paths or roads here, just a vast, open, unending space. No houses, no trees, no people, just the constant, biting wind and the occasional dried skeleton of a long-dead foal, abandoned in the hills and left to decay.
Isobel wrapped her shawl tighter around her shoulders. It was getting colder and darker as the sun, hidden behind its thick blanket of cloud, sank lower toward the horizon. She’d walked much further than she’d realised and needed to get back to the house before nightfall.
She came here to feel free, but it was an easy place to become lost, trapped in the wilderness, nothing but the darkness for company.
But that house felt like a prison to her. She had to get away and come out here if only for a few hours.
Isobel had arrived at Lansdowne just six months before.
It was a giant ruin of a house and the last of her family’s fortune. The memories she had of staying there as a child were happy ones, full of laughter and light. But when she’d arrived on that ice-cold October day she’d been struck by the forbidding darkness of the place.
She’d forgotten the great, black, iron gates, taller than two men and guarded by a huge stone wolf on either side, keeping their watch with distrustful menace. As the gates swung open to allow her carriage through, she had peered out of her window to gaze upon a shadowy replica of her childhood home.
All the charm that came with an ageing mansion had fallen away, leaving a decrepit shell. Ivy clawed along its crumbling walls, sinking its tendons into the building, and slowly tearing the stonework to delicate pieces that dropped from the wall, leaving gaping wounds in the house’s façade. The windows, once thrown open to let light pour into the many rooms, had been sealed closed, blacked out from the inside with shutters, while the wooden frames slowly turned to rot. The grand front door, which had once been a bright, shining black, with gleaming brass fittings as polished and proud as a palace guard, now stood peeling and dull. As inviting as a cave.
The beautiful, mighty building of Isobel’s youth had been infected with a disease, a disease that was causing its flesh to blacken and break.
That disease was Zillah.
Her uncle’s widow, the Marquise, had appeared from nowhere and without introduction to the rest of the family. She’d married Isobel’s uncle and taken up residence in his house, sucking up his fortune like a vampire. His health had deteriorated slowly, decaying like the house. Until he finally succumbed and left the family wealth and title to this mysterious, unknown woman.
With Isobel’s parents cut out of her uncle’s will they’d had nothing to leave her when they passed. She’d initially considered becoming a governess but then out of the blue, a letter had arrived from her new aunt, Zillah. It explained that as ‘family’ it was her duty to care for her niece and that she must come to live with her at once.
On that first day, the Marquise had swept into the grand, decaying entrance hall. She was a tall woman, slender and dark: she would have been extraordinary to look at in her youth and, as a woman of nearly fifty, she was striking enough to render Isobel speechless.
“So now I have everything my husband left me,” she said with mild disdain. “A collapsing house, a landless title, and a penniless niece.” As she spoke, she walked up to Isobel and took hold of her chin, carefully regarding the young woman’s features.
“At least you aren’t as ugly as the house,” she said and stalked off without another word.
Over the next few weeks, she became more and more intrigued by the Marquise’s decision to invite her to live at Lansdowne. They rarely spent any time together, and when they did, it was only so Zillah could watch, still and silent, while Isobel played the piano and sang.
No one ever came to the house. There were the servants, of course, Mrs Grantham, a caring but quiet cook, who preferred not to interact with her ‘betters’, and a gardener, Mr Harris, who was rarely seen and seemed to make little impact on the weeds, which were slowly consuming the house and gardens, burying them under an infestation of browning vines.
During those lonely months, Isobel had become filled with a longing despair that can only come from deep isolation.
Her respite finally came when Zillah hired a lady’s maid, Kate.
She’d started at Lansdowne in January. After a bitterly cold winter and a dismal Christmas, Kate had been a fresh beacon of light and joy. Zillah was seen less and less, taking to her rooms sometimes a week at a time, and Kate would often be free to talk with Isobel. For the first time in months, she’d had someone to laugh and share her thoughts with.
But there were still long hours and sometimes days of loneliness when she wouldn’t see a soul. It was then that she would escape to the moors, to walk along the desolate hills and spend hours wandering the countryside but never staying after dark.
Isobel picked up her pace. She wasn’t usually one to hurry but there was something about this creeping night that made her blood run cold. She stopped to listen. She was sure she heard a howl.
She could see Lansdowne House up ahead. The gates were closed, and she prayed they weren’t locked. The sun was sinking beneath the horizon. She had barely minutes before the world around her was plunged into night. As she came to the road leading to the house, she ran and was sure she could hear running behind her.
‘Just an echo,’ she told herself, but pushed herself to run faster, nonetheless.
She reached the gate and her heart surged with relief: it was open. She burst through and clanged the gate closed behind her. The clashing of the iron rang out in the darkness and she moved to pull the bolt across.
Something caught her eye, a shadow looming on the road. She thought it might be a silhouette cast by a tree or a rock. But something about it made her stop, made her blood freeze in her veins, her muscles tense, and her breath catch in her throat.
She tried to force herself to breathe, force herself to push the air from her chest, then lock the gate and go inside. But she was paralysed, staring into the gloom.
Then it moved.
The shadow moved towards her. She wanted to scream, to run, but all she could do was watch as it came closer. Stalking through the darkness, great black haunches, thick, black fur, and two shining eyes that stared straight into her soul.
They faced one another in the darkness. Just a few feet apart.
Isobel needed to lock the gate, she knew she had to lock the gate, she knew that beast could tear right through her. But all she could do was watch as the beast watched her.
Then it left. It turned and stalked off into the night.
Shaking, but finally breathing in hard, ragged gasps, Isobel locked the gate and backed away, before turning and running into the house.
She slammed the front door. The noise echoed around the cold, empty hallway. She locked and bolted it, hoping to keep as far away from that beast as she could manage.
“Will you be wanting your dinner now, ma’am?”
Isobel jumped at the sound of someone so close to her.
She turned to see the cook, Mrs Grantham, standing in the darkened hallway, but the cheerful smile on her face fell as she saw how terrified Isobel looked.
“Is there something wrong, ma’am?”
Isobel didn’t know how to explain, how she could describe what she’d just seen.
“I…” she stammered, “I think I just saw a wolf…”
“Well, it was a dog, a black dog… but its eyes–”
“A HOUND!?” The woman seemed suddenly terrified.
“I believe so, yes,” said Isobel, concerned by Mrs Grantham’s sudden fear. “Have you ever seen one?”
“No!” said the woman. “I have never seen it, never. They say it is as large as a man, as black as coal, and with flaming eyes that look as if they know you.”
“Yes!” Isobel was grateful that at least what she had seen was real and not some imagining brought about by the madness of isolation. “That’s what I saw! Are they dangerous?”
“Dangerous?” Mrs Grantham looked at Isobel as if she were mad. “It is the Devil himself, ma’am, a portent of death, an omen! The house is cursed!”
She turned and hurried off back to the servants’ quarters, leaving Isobel alone in the hallway.
She struggled to sleep that night. Her dreams were filled with black dogs and glowing eyes chasing her through the dark. She was fleeing across the moors, running faster and faster but it wasn’t fast enough: the hound was gaining on her, its teeth bared, its eyes aflame. She could see the house but she couldn’t reach it, couldn’t get closer, and then she fell. The hound leapt upon her, all claws and teeth, ready to rip her to pieces. Only it was no longer the hound, it was the Marquise, Zillah, holding her down holding her tightly, ready to bite.
She could hear Kate calling to her. She struggled against Zillah, struggled to get free.
And then she was awake.
“Bella, shh, you’re alright.”
Kate was there, holding her, stroking her hair. She started to relax, to breathe again. She was safe: the dog was gone. Long gone.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“It’s alright,” Kate said, still holding her, “it was just a bad dream.”
“How did you know?”
“I heard you call out.”
“I couldn’t sleep, I was passing the door. But I ought to go: it’s very late.”
“Please stay.” Isobel wasn’t sure she could bear to be alone anymore.
Kate glanced at the door as if thinking that someone might burst through at any moment. Then she climbed in between the sheets, wrapping her arms tightly around Isobel who backed into her, feeling warm and safe; protected. As Kate leaned over and kissed her softly on the cheek, she felt a rush of happiness that she hadn’t felt since being at Lansdowne.
“You shouldn’t have to stay in this place,” Kate whispered.
“I don’t have anywhere else I can go,” she said, and as she slowly gave into sleep, held tightly in the gentle arms of a beautiful girl, she decided she was happy where she was.
The next evening Isobel was surprised to see Zillah in the drawing-room, staring into the fire.
“Good evening, Aunt,” she said, staying by the door, unsure if she should take a seat or wait for an invitation.
Zillah glanced across at her.
“I saw her last night.” She spoke quietly, matter-of-factly, but there was an air of threat in her voice.
“Saw who?” Isobel asked, unsure if there had been some visitor she hadn’t been told of.
“Don’t play with me, girl. I saw her go into your room last night and I saw her leave your room again this morning.”
Isobel was horrified: she hadn’t even realised that Zillah had been able to leave her bed, let alone stalk the halls.
“I had a nightmare. She came to comfort me.”
“I’m sure she did,” Zillah said. “I will not have that whore in my house any longer. She will be gone in the morning.”
“What!?” Isobel was aghast. “You can’t let her go–”
Zillah turned, enraged, strode across the room and grabbed Isobel’s face with one hand.
“Make no mistake, child,” she hissed, “you are mine. You are mine to look at, mine to watch over, and, if I so choose, you are mine to have. You are my possession and I will not have a servant girl taking to your bed.”
Zillah pushed her back and Isobel stumbled. She turned and fled the room.
“Come back here, girl!” Zillah called, but Isobel had no intention of going back. She had to find Kate, had to tell her, had to stop her from leaving.
By the time Isobel found Kate in the servants’ yard, she was so distressed by the violent encounter she could hardly speak.
Kate swept her up into an embrace.
“What on earth has happened?” she asked, holding her tightly.
“She says you have to leave.”
“I know,” Kate said slowly, “she told me an hour ago. I will travel in the morning.”
“But you can’t go!”
“I have no choice, Bella.”
“But I don’t know what I shall do if you’re not here!” Her voice was becoming choked: she hadn’t fully realised how much it meant to have Kate close to her.
“I’m sure you’ll manage.” She spoke cheerfully as if leaving was nothing, a mere trifle, and Isobel only felt more desperate to make her understand.
“I don’t think I can face it!” she said. “I don’t think I can face life without you.”
Kate stared at her for a moment and wiped a tear from Isobel’s cheek, smiling at her, a half-smile; a painful smile.
“I don’t think I can face life without you either,” she whispered. Then she leaned forward and kissed her, a soft, gentle kiss on the lips and Isobel took her in her arms. Holding her, kissing her back and pulling her closer, tighter, she couldn’t let her go.
“So, this is where I find you.”
Isobel pulled back to see Zillah standing at the kitchen door, a look of disgust on her face.
“In with the filth and the dogs.” She marched forward and grabbed Isobel’s arm.
“Let go!” Isobel shouted, twisting out of Zillah’s grasp. The Marquise snarled and slapped her hard across the face with the back of her hand.
Isobel stumbled and fell to the ground, the shock rendering her motionless for a moment before the rage and fear washed over her. She scrambled up from the cobbled yard and ran.
She ran through the yard, to the front of the house and out of the open gates onto the moors.
She heard Kate calling after her, but didn’t care. She wasn’t going back to that house, she wasn’t going back to that woman. She urged herself to run faster across the uneven ground. The sun was just setting but the moon was bright enough for her to see her way.
Suddenly Kate was upon her. “What are you doing?” she shouted, angry in her panic.
“I will not go back. I will not go back to that woman!”
“You have to go back, Bella, you’re in danger out here.” She glanced up at the full moon and then they looked across the horizon to see Zillah, silhouetted against the setting sun and heading towards them.
“RUN!” screamed Kate. Her voice was filled with panic, she looked at Isobel. “Run, get to the house, don’t look back, RUN!”
She did as she was told, the fear in Kate’s voice frightening her into obedience. She followed a different path, avoiding Zillah, but then she heard the wolf. The same blood-curdling howl she’d heard the night before: it was close. She sped up: they had to get back to the house, they had to outrun it.
Suddenly there was a scream, a high-pitched, gut-wrenching scream, a final scream. She turned, she couldn’t see Kate. She had to go back, she had to find her, she could have fallen; it could be her screaming.
Then she saw it.
Standing on the peak of a hill, black as death, its bright, shining eyes turning to look at her.
There was nothing she could do. There was nothing she could do but turn and run. Isobel pelted across the moor, stumbling but not falling as she sped toward the gates of the house, clanging them closed behind her.
Then she stopped. If she bolted the gate, she locked them both out; she would be trapping Zillah and Kate on the moors with the hound.
She stared out into the darkness, desperate, hoping to see some sign of Kate.
But then she saw the hound, bounding towards her across the moorland.
She bolted the gate and ran to the house.
“By dogs, you say!” The plump, greasy lawyer eased himself back in his chair. “I had no idea.”
“Wolves,” Isobel corrected.
It had been over a month but she still felt numb. It was too hard to imagine and too difficult to think about.
“I didn’t think we had such things.” He shook his head and muttered as he chewed on his pipe. “She left you everything, of course.”
“I understand,” said Isobel, nodding slowly.
“All you have to do is sign the final terms, and the house is yours. Ah tea!” he said, turning as the door opened and the tea tray, laden with cakes, was brought in and set down on the table.
“Will that be all?”
Isobel looked up at her and smiled. There was just a small, fading scar marking her beautiful face, the only remnant of that night.
“These really are wonderful cakes, my compliments to the cook!” He looked at Kate, rubbing his sweaty hands together as he sat forward and reached for the largest cream pastry on the tray. “And, if I may be so bold,” he said through mouthfuls, “what extraordinary eyes you have.”
If you enjoyed this, you might enjoy some of the other short tales in my collection of lesbian short stories.
MAGIC & ROMANCE
Vampires and werewolves, confused teens and surfers, corporate bosses and knights in shining armour, are just some of the characters that thrill, kill, and fall in love in this compelling collection of funny, exciting, magical, and adventure-filled stories.
Did you enjoy this short story? Then you might enjoy this extract from my historical adventure Mask of the Highwaywoman
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