“Joseph Sale has written one of the most beautifully detailed stories I’ve ever read. THE CLAW OF CRAVING is immersive, captivating and compelling, I was completely enthralled from beginning to end.” -
Candace Nola, author of BISHOP.
*Note* UK Author
CHAPTER 1: THE BLACK STAR
The brothel—although that word did not do justice to the place—was situated in a back alley in a city whose name Alan had already forgotten. He didn’t care about where it was, or even its history, only what it could offer him.
The black rain pummelling his windshield mirrored the black storm of his thoughts. He was scared on a number of levels: scared that this place could give him what he sought, but also scared that it would disappoint him. There had been many disappointments on the road to this place, as he followed the whispers of a secret word, a word that tasted like off-milk on the tongue yet still invited him to taste more.
He had sacrificed so much to get to this point. His wife, disgusted by his uncovered proclivities, had left him. His business had failed, more due to his inattention than the embezzled profits. His mother, father, and brother had disowned him. He remembered the very last time he had gone to visit his parents, after his wife had told them what he was; his picture had been removed from the hallway, and their faces had shone with cold light like winter’s frost. That was about all he was allowed to see before the door slammed in his face.
Soon, he would run out of money. He doubted he could get employment again. Not because of his secret, for there was no obvious stain on his employment records, but simply because he lacked the strength. He had committed himself to the pursuit of something extraordinary, and it had consumed him.
His hands shook as he waited in the car. He often thought of his hands as independent of himself; his hands were doing the deeds, not him. He smiled at the thought of using that in some kind of legal defence. Your honour, I tried to stop them, but the hands acted of their own accord, and they outnumbered me two to one.
He had come so far, done so much, it was ludicrous to hesitate now. Yet, he felt afraid.
He’d parked on the main road, perpendicular to the back alley that curved teasingly away from sight. The neon lights of The Black Star shone on the dismal brick walls of the tenement buildings that formed the alleyway, a spillage of rainbow, as though the divine beauty of nature could be pierced and made to bleed. It seemed the glow at the end of a tunnel—but perhaps it was rather the headlight of an oncoming train.
“Screw your courage to the sticking place,” he muttered. He knew the words were not his own, a quote from some play or book, but he couldn’t now think which one.
He forced open the door with a gut-wrenching effort of will. It was ironic that in the early days of his addiction he had tried to exert his will to resist temptation. Now, at what had to be the end of his road, either the answer to it all or his total destruction, he had to exert will to succumb to his desires.
The rain soaked him through immediately. His long overcoat was no defence against it. Spitting water from his mouth, he ignominiously jogged through the downpour into the alleyway. He could almost laugh. He had imagined his approach to this final destination in a little more grandiose manner, not the scampering of a frightened monkey caught in a storm.
The gutters frothed and gurgled with the rainfall. The brickwork around him shone with mazy patterns in the strange alchemy of moonlight and neon. Rodent eyes blinked at him from under the cover of dumpsters. He imagined the place smelled fetid usually, but the rain was washing that smell away, purging the air. Would that his soul could be purged as easily.
His shoes beat a splashing tattoo on the dirty concrete. The neon light brightened and brightened as he rounded the bend of the alleyway and finally beheld The Black Star. Its front was not much to look at. No glass windows with dancing girls, like in the Red Light district of Amsterdam. No gaudy placards with silhouettes of easy women, as in the strip clubs of Birmingham. No plush pink and purple décor, as in the whorehouses of London. A black windowless wall stared back at him. In place of a door, there was a metal shutter, the kind that shopfronts pulled down in rough neighbourhoods to deter theft. The only glamour was a neon sign, spelling out The Black Star’s name in a font that was almost Hebraic. He saw no bouncer or even a CCTV camera, though the latter might well be hidden. At this point, Alan didn’t care if he was caught on film. His life was in ruins. There was only the mystery—that was all he had left. And this place, perhaps it would hold the answer. It had to.
He shuffled towards the shutter and, not quite sure what to do, awkwardly rapped upon it. The clang of knuckles on metal seemed to reverberate through the hissing downpour. He turned, paranoid, expecting perhaps to see the red and blue lights of police cars now following down the alley. But the place was deserted. Even the tenement buildings stood silent. Their windows were occluded, like rows of sightless eyes. He shivered.
He stood in the rain for long moments. He was beginning to grow cold, his bones wetted through as much as his coat. Then, he heard a voice: harsh, guttural.
“Why do you come?”
His heart thudded in his chest. He remembered the first time he had watched porn, waiting until his parents were asleep, creeping to his computer, the adrenaline rush of something totally forbidden. It had been a long time since he had felt this level of childish excitement and terror. It was itself an exquisite sensation, almost worth the journey.
“I seek to go beyond...” he answered, surprised by the strength of his own voice. “I seek an experience like no other. To transcend the Self...” He wasn’t sure about that last bit. He hadn’t known he was going to be challenged at the door. He was speaking as honestly as he could, but the truth was that what he wanted couldn’t be put into words. He had gone beyond acts that had easy niches and names. There was no category that described his desires. Of this he was strangely proud.
“That is not what you really seek,” the voice answered sharply.
Alan bit his lip, looked around, as though expecting to see the answer written in neon somewhere.
“I seek transcendental experience...”
A harsh, derisive snort cut him off.
"We cannot help you. If you wish for transcendental experience, go and join a Buddhist temple!”
A monosyllabic bark of laughter, and then footsteps.
“No!” Alan said. “No wait!”
He could not see to whom he spoke, but he sensed they had paused before entering some secret doorway on the other side of the shutter. If they left now, Alan knew he would never get to the answer, he would never understand the mystery of desire that had haunted his life like Churchill’s Black Dog. Even as a child, innocent, the question had plagued him, caused him to pursue experiences other children would shy away from: eating wasps, smothering his naked body in flower pollen, pouring honey into his eyes. His parents had hoped these were merely symptoms of childish idiocy, and that he would grow out of them. From their point of view, he had, but in reality he had merely become more adept at recognising what was considered socially unacceptable and hiding it from prying eyes. His pursuit of the answer had continued. As a teenager, he had persuaded a girl he was dating to allow him to paint her entire body yellow. He bought her jewellery studded with citrine and yellow quartz. How fondly he remembered Daisy now, his gateway drug.
When his trials with Daisy had failed, her dumping him and calling him a freak, he had investigated other avenues: drinking raw lemon-juice every day for a period of three months, smoking every manner of yellow flower or herb imaginable until he nearly hacked up his lungs, pissing into his own mouth. He had once sunbathed for so long he had given himself serious burns, his body that of a disgusting mummy raised from the dead, the mummy-cloth his translucent, peeling flesh. I hope I become a beautiful yellow butterfly when this chrysalid is shed, he remembered thinking. Oh, he had done so much more since then, and still he was no butterfly.
He was crying, he realised. Crying as he stood in a back alley, awaiting something… he didn’t know what. The rain was cold, but his tears were burning coals upon his cheeks.
“Do you know what you seek?” the voice said, and it seemed to Alan there was a note of softness, of compassion, as though whoever it was had once stood where he stood, had once been lost to the world, lost to self, and lost to God.
Alan swallowed down his emotion. He had to be strong. He had to go through with it.
“What is Carcosa?”
With a grinding shriek, the metal shutter began to rise.
Discover the origins of The Claw of Craving in The Beauty of Carcosa by Joseph Sale
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