It hasn’t even been a day since I first laid eyes upon it.
I was dropping my girlfriend off for her last in-person yoga class before everything went back on lockdown for the winter, when a portrait hanging in the display window of the shop across the street unexpectedly caught my attention.
It was an eighteen-inch by twenty-four-inch expressionist painting of a black humanoid creature with poorly defined edges and features, like it was bleeding into the shadows around it. It was tall, gaunt, and hunched, dressed in a tattered hood and mantle that vaguely resembled a set of wings. It lacked all facial features save for a pair of misty white eyes, the only part of its body that wasn’t black. It held a lumpy sack in one hand, and in the other, it plucked up a child between two of its long, Dr. Seussesque fingers.
The child was bruised and bloodied, and undeniably terrified for its life, but no motive could be inferred from the stance of its tormentor. The whole scene was reminiscent of Saturn devouring his children, only with Saturn reimagined as some sort of Lovecraftian boogieman.
My interest sufficiently peaked, I decided to go inside for a closer look.
The shop in question was Orville’s Old-Fashioned Oddity Outlet, and was mildly infamous for selling strange items of questionable authenticity. Ever since I had first started taking my girlfriend to the neighbouring Eve’s Eden of Esoterica, I often found myself wondering how old Orville managed to stay in business. His oddity shop rarely seemed busy, and from what I could tell most people agreed that his merchandise was overpriced hokum.
It could have just been that Orville was living off an inheritance or something and was operating his business at a loss for the hell of it, or that the runoff from Eve's was enough to keep him afloat. But, a quick glance at the local paranormal forum HarrowickHallows.net produced photographs of some of our town’s wealthiest residents visiting the shop, along with a handful of other mysterious figures who nobody recognized. Everything from cloaked cultists to colourful clown girls had been seen making after-hours visits to Orville’s. So maybe, just maybe, a few of Orville’s high-end items were legit, and the occasional sale to his select clientele was all he needed to stay in business.
It was a fun little thought as I stepped through the door, paying no heed to the large ‘Caveat Emptor’ emblazoned upon it.
“VHS tapes? What am I supposed to do with VHS tapes?” I heard a gruff voice ask. I turned towards it and saw an old man in a garish pastel suit with his feet up on his desk and a phone in his hand. With his other hand, he indicated he would be with me in one moment. “Nobody has a VCR anymore, so what good would – You have a VCR to go with the tape collection? And what’s its deal? Of course you can’t set the clock, there’s nothing paranormal about that! Listen, what are you trying to sell, the tapes or what's on the tapes? Because if it's what's on the tapes then maybe you could – uh-huh. Well, I'll never be able to move them as a general item if I have to convince people to buy an obsolete VCR to go with them. I might be able to broker a deal with a specific buyer, but I'll need more information. Not now though, I've got a customer. I'll call you back. I – I said – no, if you put a piece of scotch tape over the removed tab you can tape over it again. If there’s tape residue then they could have been taped over, but it could just be from an old label, how would I know? I – yeah, you figure that out. I got to go. Bye.”
He hung up the receiver on the cradle of a bronze and mahogany rotary phone before folding his fingers and giving me his full attention.
“Honestly, the things some of these jerks try to unload on me,” he said with a roll of his eyes. “Anywho, can I help you find anything, young man?”
“Yeah, actually. I was wondering about that painting in the window,” I replied, pointing to the display behind me.
“Oh, you mean The Self-Portrait of Rancorous Ruck,” the old man flashed me a devious smile before donning an iridescent tragedy mask with a surgical mask fixed to the inside.
“Self-portrait?” I asked skeptically.
“Absolutely,” he said, rising from his seat and leading me towards the painting. “Cryptids and monsters are notoriously difficult to get decent photographs of, and that was a bit of a problem for Old Rancor here. He can’t exist in the real world unless he already exists in the mind of a… suitable host, let’s say. He’s sustained by thoughts about him and uses his host’s innate mental energy to manifest a physical form for himself. This presents a bit of a Catch-22, since he needs people to know about him to exist, but existing is kind of a prerequisite for people to know about you. What’s a damned thoughtform to do? If you’re a thought-based murder monster with an artistic streak like Rancorous Ruck here, you leave a self-portrait behind as a calling card. That way, even after your host is pushing up daisies, another one is bound to come along sooner or later and end up getting you stuck in their head.”
He took the portrait down from the easel and allowed me to get a better look at it, taking care not to look at it himself.
The first thing I noticed was that the lumps of the sack were much more clearly hands or feet or faces pushing against it from the inside. The bottom of the sack was wet and dripping with a dark fluid, presumably blood, and the background showed many small sets of footprints running rapidly in all directions.
Finally, in the corner, I could make the signature of the artist in the same stark white as the creature’s eyes; Rancorous Ruck, Self-Portrait Sept. 1947.
“So, you’re claiming that the creature in the portrait is the artist, and it leaves these paintings behind as a way to infect other victims?” I asked incredulously.
“That’s right, and anyone with a lick of sense or concern for their fellow human beings burns ’em, so they’re very rare,” Orville replied. “I know what you’re thinking; why in the world would anyone pay thirteen hundred dollars for a cursed painting?”
“Before taxes and various fees and surcharges, yes. The reason is that since Old Rancor is sustained by your thoughts, you’re able to exert some control over how he manifests. The more you study this portrait, the more of Rancorous you take into yourself, and – if you’re strong enough – the more of him you can bend to your will. Potentially very useful; or, you know, life-saving, if he decides to come after you. Which he probably will, since you’ve taken such an interest in his handiwork. Good luck getting him out of your head now. Seriously though, your best bet is to buy the painting and study every square inch of it until your eyes are bloodshot, put in some eye drops, and keep studying.”
I was more than a little confused by Orville’s sales pitch of ‘buy this possessed painting in the hopes of inoculating yourself against the demon first’. I didn’t really believe him, but I did find the story mildly entertaining.
As for the painting itself, I genuinely liked it. It was delightfully macabre, and I was curious about why the artist would have titled it a self-portrait. I could tell that it was an actual painting and not a print, so even though I would have liked some actual provenance on the piece, thirteen hundred wasn’t an outrageous asking price for a decent work by an unknown artist.
As much as I hate myself for it, I ended up buying the damn thing, which came to almost sixteen hundred with all of Orville’s taxes, fees, and surcharges. He wrapped it up very carefully, still taking the greatest of care not to look at it himself, and helped me Tetris it into the trunk of my car. I didn’t want my girlfriend to see it; not because I was afraid of the curse, but because I was afraid of her cursing me out. Fortunately, when she came out of Eve’s, she put her bags in the backseat instead of the trunk. I didn’t really have a plan for what I would have said if she had opened the trunk, but I got lucky. That was a fight we could save for another day.
Once I had taken her home and gotten back to my own apartment, for some reason I took Orville’s advice and carefully inspected the painting before hanging it up. It didn’t make any sense though, since there wasn’t really anything to study. Rancorous Ruck was just a shadow person, and there didn’t seem much more I could learn just by looking at him. If I squinted, I thought that maybe I could make out the outline of a belt, ragged sleeves or the tattered hem of his hood, but that was it. I stared into the empty void of his face, thinking that if there was any hidden detail that was where I’d find it, but no matter how hard I looked I couldn’t see anything other than those two white eyes.
Since my thorough examination of the piece failed to yield any hidden secrets, I felt comfortably reassured that Orville had been full of crap. I even googled ‘Rancorous Ruck’, and got zero results, which seemed a crushing blow to Orville’s claim that there had ever been multiple paintings by an artist using that pseudonym. I was convinced the painting was a one-off by an unknown artist that had somehow found its way to Orville's shop, and he made up a story to go with it as he did for all his wares.
I did vaguely recall seeing something about a Red Ruck on the Harrowick Hallows forum, but I didn’t think too much of it. I figured both were just drawing inspiration from the same local legend. I tried taking a photo of the portrait with my phone to upload to the forum, and that’s when things first started to get weird.
When I looked at the portrait through my phone, Ruck was nothing but an amorphous black cloud. There was nothing humanoid about his form at all, and the white bits that had been his eyes were now clearly just breaks in the cloud. I fiddled around with the settings and even the lighting in my room, but nothing could make Rancorous Ruck appear on the screen the way he did in the portrait.
This got even more unsettling when I tried to take a photo or record a video. Each and every time, the file wouldn’t save, no matter what I did. I tried saving it to the device, the SD card, the cloud; nothing worked.
At this point, I was starting to get a little freaked out, but there were still rational explanations to explore before accepting Orville’s cockamamie story. Like, maybe the portrait wasn’t from 1947 at all but was far more modern, and embedded with some machine-readable code for digital rights management. But that wasn’t really how something like that would work, was it? I would get a notification telling me I didn’t have the rights to share the image. It wouldn’t just inexplicably be unable to save files, and it certainly wouldn’t automatically censor it the way it was doing. Could it have been for a joke or marketing scheme then? But that still would have required getting the software onto my phone somehow. Maybe my phone was infected with malware and it was just a coincidence that the first thing I tried to take a photo of was this creepy painting.
That was pretty much all I could think of, aside from the obvious theories about losing my marbles. Frustrated, I tossed my phone aside and leaned in to examine the portrait once again, to see if I could find anything that might explain the incongruity between what I was seeing and what the camera on my phone saw.
I found myself staring into Ruck’s eyes, the eyes that my phone said were nothing more than empty spaces in a shapeless black form. But they were too deliberately placed and shaped to be anything but eyes, and they had been painted a very distinct white to contrast with the darkness around them, making their presence undeniable. I could even make out the faint outline of pupils and irises, though I hadn’t noticed them before. In fact, now that I was really looking at them, I could see that they even had corneas, each of which held the reflection of a vague, ghostly figure.
It was astonishing, actually, how much detail had gone into eyes that would only be noticed up close.
By then I was really starting to wish that my girlfriend had discovered the painting. At least then I’d have a rational excuse to take it back to Orville’s. Not that he would have taken it back. He was very clear that the only thing about his shop that wasn’t real was his return policy.
I tried to convince myself that I was being silly. The whole reason I bought the painting was because it was creepy, and if I had spent as much money on my phone as I had on it maybe it would be able to take a decent picture of it. Sighing in defeat, I resigned myself to living with the portrait for at least one night. If it was still a problem in the light of day, I’d try to pawn it off on some gallery or museum for a tax deduction.
Sleep, unsurprisingly, eluded me that night. Have you heard of the Tetris Effect? It’s when you have residual imagery of something you were really focused on, either in the dark or in your peripheral vision.
Well, as I laid in the dark that night, I could see Rancorous Ruck. At first, it was just his eyes floating in the darkness, his body as amorphous as it had been on my phone. But, gradually, he started to take shape. His head, his hood, and his mantle, then his limbs, his torso, and finally his sack all slowly emerged as distinct from the surrounding darkness, and I could see him as clearly as if I was looking at his portrait. The child, however, did not appear, leaving Ruck with a free hand. He held up his long fingers to his face to examine them, and I thought nothing of it, dismissing it as more hypnagogic imagery.
Then he lowered his hands and looked towards me, and a smile made of nothing more than a bright white line broke out across his face.
He set his sack on the ground and began noisily rummaging through it, and as I drifted off to sleep, I remember thinking that it was very odd that a residual image on my retina should be able to make any noise at all.
It was still night when I awoke again, still dark, but I could immediately tell something was wrong. My bedroom door was open when I knew I had closed it, and light was leaking in through the crack when I knew I had turned all the lights off.
Panicking, I bolted out of bed and dashed into the living room, ready to confront any intruders with only my bare fists.
My machismo vanished pretty quickly when I saw what was waiting for me in that room.
In the sepia light of candles that I didn’t own, I saw the hunched figure of Rancorous Ruck working ardently at another self-portrait. His back was turned to me, and thus the painting was facing my direction. He had drawn himself emerging out of an inky black patch of mould on an old brick wall, wrapping his hand around the mouth of his victim while brandishing a knife in the other. Even though his victim’s face was mostly covered by his hand, there wasn’t the slightest doubt in my mind that it was supposed to be me.
He turned around to face me then, his face nothing more than two white dots and a smile against an impenetrable black void. He held up his brush, heavy with paint that he carelessly let drip to my floor, and moved slightly to the side so that I could get a better view of his artwork.
“I don’t think I got your eyes quite right, boy,” he mocked in a raspy voice. “Hope you can live with that.”
I didn’t respond. Hell, I barely heard him, my heart was pounding so hard. My veins were flooded with adrenaline but I couldn’t will my limbs to move. I was practically catatonic, sweating and shivering as I just stared wide-eyed at the monster painting in my living room.
Ruck just snickered in contempt, turning his attention back to his painting, adding a few finishing touches.
Only then, when his back was turned and I thought I actually had a chance, did I run. I ran to my apartment door and threw it open, only to see Old Rancor casually standing in the doorframe, blocking my path.
“Hello,” he smirked, with an exaggerated wave of his long, mangey fingers. “Yes, Dr. Seussesque is what you called them, if I’m not mistaken. A colourful description, I must admit, even if it’s not exactly what I was going for.”
I slammed the door shut, but it just went right through him, and he had somehow moved up slightly so that I had just shut him into the apartment with me.
I had two choices then, either to fight him head-on or try to reach the fire escape. For absolutely nothing remotely resembling a rational motive, I tried to throttle him and tackle him to the ground. Before I could even make contact though, he slipped behind me with an ethereal ease and leapt upon my back, putting me into a chokehold and muffling my screams with his hand. I frantically tried to buck him off, slamming up against the wall and rolling upon the floor, but he clung to me with a dauntless and uncanny tenacity.
It didn't take long for me to exhaust my oxygen supply like that, and I quickly lost consciousness.
I wasn't dead though, not yet. I awoke at my desk, tied to my chair, with my laptop booted up and placed in front of me. It was still night, and I probably wasn't out for more than a few minutes. I began frantically looking around for my attacker, and sure enough, he was standing over me with his arms crossed, waiting patiently for me to wake up.
“What the fuck are you?” I demanded, struggling against my bindings whilst on the verge of hyperventilation.
“Exactly what Orville told you, or at least close enough that it’s not worth going over again,” he replied. He bent over and picked up his soggy, dripping sack, and I could see slowly writhing faces, hands, and other body parts pushing against it from the inside, moaning in dull anguish as they thrashed within their burlap prison. “See this? In here are all the minds of my old victims, and they’re what keeps me going when the world forgets about me. You’re going in here too, but not just yet. I have a small favour to ask of you first.”
“Fuck you!” I cursed, vehemently spitting at him. He backhanded me so hard my chair toppled over. I was too out of it for a second to notice him putting me back up, but apparently, he did, because when I came back to my senses I was looking at my computer again.
"Orville was right, you know. Your thoughts sustain me, so all you had to do to beat me was not think of me as a monster," he taunted me, his smile twisting into a jagged white scrawl of chalk as he squeezed my cheeks with his prickly, slimy fingers. "A shame that's easier said than done. You have managed to make one non-trivial contribution to my being though, aside from the Seuss fingers. You couldn’t find a single search result when you googled me, and in this day and age, one needs an online presence if one hopes to get anywhere.
“So here’s the deal; I’m going to paint, and you’re going to write, and if you come up with something postable by the time I've finished my painting, you'll get the privilege of going into my sack in one piece. But if you refuse…”
He held his sack up to my face and pulled it open. Inside was an endless abyss of severed limbs, flayed skins, decapitated heads and scalped faces, all of them still animate and aware.
Worst of all, most of them looked like they had come from children.
He snapped the bag shut again, and I tried to muster up the courage to tell him to fuck off again – but I couldn’t.
And so, I’m writing this; Rancorous Ruck’s debut post to the interwebs, exposing him to a bigger audience than his paintings ever could.
I don’t know if something written by someone else will infect people the same way as his paintings do, but I really hope they don’t. But, if this post does infect people, please know that I’m truly sorry. The bastard’s in my head now, I’m not strong enough to resist him. Once I post this, I’m going in the sack, and maybe you think that’s what I deserve for giving into Rancor’s demands.
But if you pity me at all, and you ever happen to be in Sombermorey, then please, please, do me one favour; burn Orville’s shop to the ground.
Written by The Vesper's Bell