Gothic Voices of the City

Three more terrifying tales from the winners of last year's Varma Prize for short gothic fiction.

Every year the Dalhousie Varma Prize is awarded to English students
who compose original works of gothic fiction. The award is named in memory of Devendra Varma, former professor emeritus of the university and former honourary vice-president of the Vampire Research Society. For your spooky enjoyment this Halloween, here are last year’s first, second-and third-place winners. 


Alphabet Soup
by Hannah Ascough

The little girl hates this new soup.

She hates her mother, too, for taking her to this new house—with its diseased wind snarling down slanted hallways, rats that slink underneath her feet. The little girl steps on cracks and hopes the blinking paintings will fall and shatter.

But mostly she hates this soup—rusty carrots and torn onions swimming in bloated alphabet pasta. It makes her angry.

Good girls don’t cry about soup, her mother had said. Good girls help mommy in the new house instead.

The little girl hates her. She told daddy not to come.

She can hear rain against the window. She swirls the soup with her spoon and wonders if the trees will reach their fingers through the soot-stained gate.

She stops stirring the pasta letters.

They keep moving.

And the little girl watches as the letters push their way to the top of her bowl, drowning the torn onions and rusty carrots. She can hear her mother clinking pots in the kitchen.

The letters have stopped moving. Don’t look behind you, they say. Don’t look.

She hears her mother scream in the kitchen. It’s loud and high and the little girl hopes it won’t scare the rats.


by Helen Pinsent

“Hush,” she whispered to her boy as the settling dust filled the stretching twilight, outside and in.

“Hush, sh-shh,” she cooed and murmured. But curiosity is a hearty weed that grows more vigorously in desert places, where the stars are distant and cold, and the mind rises up to meet them.

“Hush now,” she held him close, and rocked him gently. Sleep would still his searching mind, as it always did. Yet sleep was slow coming tonight, and already she heard whispers in the black distance.

“Hush, child,” she spoke more loudly this time, to drown out guileless questions about creatures and fiends, and fear, and silence. And always the dark.

“Boy, hush. Sleep now,” but the emphasis was a mistake; her son pressed her with renewed fascination, oblivious to the room’s creeping shadows.

“Hush!” she spat with urgency. Suddenly her own memory was betraying her, summoning ragged scraps of broken houses, broken claws, and the reek of stale blood.

“Hush, be quiet!” she pled, half with her innocent boy and half with her experienced mind. The voices were solid now, a filthy chittering from the swelling corners. She trembled, and not with cold.

“Hush! I mean it!” she commanded, though she hadn’t needed to. Her boy had suddenly gone silent. He was staring past her.

“Baby, please! Hush!” she begged, to the din of sweaty snarling and the splintering of the walls. “Please, my love! They come when they’re called!”


The Close Reading Killer
by Tegan Samija

“Pathetic fallacy...,” the man breathed as he strode through the downpour around puddles gaping like holes into another world, “...when the weather reflects action unfolding.”

Around him, children whined as their mothers pushed raincoats at them to wear over polyester capes and jeweled gowns, and fireworks spluttered in the distance. He stopped at a house guarded by three jack-o’-lanterns, crouching to extinguish the light behind their toothy grins to discourage trick-or-treaters, and eased open the front door.

“Trick...or treat?” he whispered in the empty doorway. Reaching his hand into the pillowcase he carried, he answered the question by withdrawing, instead of candy, an ornate penknife. A very old memory of his favourite professor teaching him tricks for analyzing a text flashed through his mind. He had come to perform a close reading tonight, and this was his writing utensil of choice. Following the smell of baking pumpkin and cinnamon emanating from the kitchen, he slipped inside.

When he emerged later, he relit the jack-o’-lanterns and reflected on what he had learned about his text. The way the heart had beat in iambic pentameter beneath his bloody fingers. The uneven last breaths creating enjambment and caesuras. Bones varying in length like lines. He had positioned one leg so it extended into the foyer—a synecdoche for a trick-or-treater to discover. The death was a story told in limited omniscient; no one would ever know that he had been the one to take the body apart in order to understand it.

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